|Michael Byrne, Richard O Callaghan, Alan Bates|
"Is there a sub-text to that or can I take it as straight abuse?" -- Joey to Butley.
Ben Butley (Alan Bates of An Unmarried Woman) is a university professor and T. S. Eliot scholar who shares an office, an apartment, and -- until recently -- his life with a young assistant and former student, Joey (Richard O Callaghan). Apparently Butley left Joey at one point to marry Anne (Susan Engel) -- their marriage lasted only a year and resulted in one child. They are now separated and Ben is back with Joey, but the latter wants to move in with gay friend, Reg (Michael Byrne), if only to get away from Butley. For Butley is truly an obnoxious character, a bitter heavy drinker who seems to care little about his students, resents that a colleague, Edna (Jessica Tandy), will have a book published, and plays nasty mind games with everyone, Reg, Joey, and Anne included. Ben discovers that Anne wants a divorce because she wants to marry a man that he thinks is the dullest fellow in England. Neither Anne nor Joey seem to be truly in love with their prospective partners, but both want to get away from Butley ... Butley was a success for playwright Simon Gray and for Alan Bates, who played the role in London and on Broadway, but the play itself is problematic. Not only is Butley completely odious on all levels, but Bates plays him in such a shrill, off-putting style -- strictly in the key of arch -- that he gets on one's nerves almost from the start. You can't understand what any man or woman would see in him! The other performers are fine, however, with especially good work from a likable and sympathetic O'Callaghan. Byrne and Tandy are also notable, and there are nice bits from Georgina Hale and Simon Rouse as students. Gray leaves a lot to the imagination, however, so we never really learn (although we can guess) how Joey feels about Butley leaving him for Anne, and how Anne feels about his homosexuality (she thinks Joey is creepy, however, which may be jealousy and homophobia on her part), or if the marriage was due to internalized homophobia on Butley's part of if he was genuinely bisexual (the term is never used). A scene between Butley and Reg illustrates how "queers" who have relationships with women can act superior to men who are strictly gay in their behavior. One suspects Gray based much of this on characters he encountered in the halls of academia, as there have certainly been plenty of professors who have both wives and boyfriends. Butley has some very good and funny dialogue but you can't quite call it a comedy, although I imagine when Nathan Lane played the role in 2006 he brought out all the humor in the loathsome character.
Verdict: Interesting enough, but it doesn't quite grip or move you. **1/2.