By MICHAEL KUCHWARA
The Associated Press
Saturday, December 2, 2006; 8:04 PM
NEW YORK -- Nicholas Martin, who knows about such things, calls Nathan Lane "the last big stage star who can sell tickets."
"He's a real theater animal," explains Martin, who has just directed Lane in the Broadway revival of Simon Gray's stark, sardonic comedy, "Butley," the tale of a complex man's emotional unraveling.
"If there were actual appreciators of the arts in government, I think Nathan would be on a postage stamp," Martin says with a laugh.
High praise for this actor, who recently sat at a table in a Tribeca restaurant on a cold, rainy day and talked, between bites of a ham-and-cheese sandwich, about "Butley," now on view at the Booth Theatre. The play has been with him for a long time.
Back in the early 1970s, a teenage Lane saw a matinee of the original Broadway production of "Butley," starring Alan Bates, the man who created the role in London and later starred in the film version.
"I remember being thrown by the (English) accents and not exactly understanding what was going on," Lane recalls, but he was mesmerized by Bates and what Lane describes as the man's "sad journey."
The play tells the story of a desperate British academic who has lost his wife, his boyfriend and pretty much his self-respect as he dismisses those around him with savage, self-deprecating humor.
Flash forward years later to a time in the mid-1980s when Lane appeared off-Broadway in another Simon Gray play, "The Common Pursuit." Author and actor became friends, with the playwright telling the young performer, "When you are old enough, you would make a terrific Butley."
But it wasn't until the late 1990s, after Gray wrote Lane a letter saying, "Isn't it time we reconsider this project," that things began to move forward.
Enter Martin, artistic director of Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. The two men had been friends for years, so Lane called him after one of the actor's short-lived TV series expired. "I would like to come to Boston to work on a serious play," he told the director.
They talked about three plays: Eugene O'Neill's lengthy "A Moon for the Misbegotten" _ "I told Nathan I just couldn't spend that much time in a rehearsal room," Martin jokes; "Cyrano de Bergerac" _ "Still a good idea," Martin says, and "Butley," which got the director's vote.
The production opened in Boston in fall 2003 and became the biggest selling ticket the Huntington ever had, according to Martin. Lane's potency at the box-office, buoyed undoubtedly by the gargantuan success of "The Producers" in 2001, was demonstrated again with the 2005 Broadway revival of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" and again this fall with "Butley," which, despite sniffling from a few critics, has done respectable business.
"It's been an emotional experience," Lane says of his current production, which is indelibly linked to his stage beginnings. "Simon and I have been friends for a long time and have always stayed in touch. And then, each night, I look over and see Dana Ivey (now in the cast of `Butley') with whom I made my Broadway debut in `Present Laughter' in 1982."
The Noel Coward comedy was the start of Lane's New York appearances, a lengthy list of shows that includes such esoteric offerings as "Merlin" and "Wind in the Willows"; Stephen Sondheim shows such as "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Frogs"; and a hugely popular revival of "Guys and Dolls" that ran almost as long as the original.
Though fascinated by Bates' performance, Lane set out to find Ben Butley on his own.
"You can't do what Alan did," the actor says. "If that were the case, we would only do plays once. But I am a totally different person and it's a totally different time.
"I have been through this before where someone has put a stamp on something and you're taking it on. It's not unusual territory for me. With this play, in some ways, it has been avoided because of that shadow which has been cast."
And the role is quite a marathon _ Butley never leaves the stage for two acts.
"There's a lot going on," Lane explains. "Butley is a troubled soul _ an alcoholic and really kind of hell-bent on self-destruction. It's watching this man spiral out of control. The thing is, it is very funny along the way. And he can't stop himself.
"`Butley' is a hard play to describe and to play. It's a lot like life. One moment it's funny and then the next moment it's not so funny. And for any audience, `Butley' is not an easy evening. This is like tuning into the second episode of a very dark, sophisticated television series and you have to catch up."
Lane is a craftsman, an actor who prides himself on working hard and then reworking a performance.
"There is no one who comes to rehearsal like Nathan," Martin says. "He arrives with what other people consider a full performance and his lines learned on day one."
After his run in "The Odd Couple" ended last June, Lane, who lives on Long Island, took the entire summer off before starting work on "Butley."
"You need time to recharge and get away from show business," the actor says. "My partner and I just got a new puppy, so we're becoming parents."
After "Butley" closes Jan. 14, Lane's options are open, although the possibility of his playing Falstaff, one of Shakespeare's most famous characters, in a production of "Henry IV" has been discussed.
Lane doesn't think he will go back into "The Producers" before the end of its Broadway run.
"It was one of the great experiences of my life," says the actor, who already has returned once to the New York production and opened the show in London. "Who wants to go back _ and what if they are not so excited to see you again?"