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Butley/How the Other Half Loves

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BUTLEY

Center Theater

Like Wilde's Lord Henry, Shaw's Henry Higgins, and Milton's Satan, Simon Gray's Ben Butley is one of those bitchy, opinionated, selfish characters who win our love even as they do everything they can to repel it. Trapped in a job he no longer takes seriously--a lecturer on English at College of London University--Butley's suffering the breakup of his marriage and the loss of his male lover. The tools that once made him a great teacher--his charm, his intellectual nimbleness, his childish need to be the center of attention--only isolate him further, and he resorts to the only weapon he has: his lacerating wit. By the end of the play he's lost, alone, and all but destroyed.

Yet we feel for him, which is, I think, Gray's point. It's also the aspect most successfully revealed in Steve Scott's production and Dan LaMorte's performance.

From the first moments of the play, when Butley blows into his office, throws his raincoat carelessly over his paper-strewn desk, takes a smashed banana out of his coat pocket, and sits down at his office mate's utterly clean desk to eat it, he's clearly a man in great pain. But LaMorte doesn't stop there. He deepens his interpretation by constantly playing one channel of communication against another, so that every message he delivers contains its own contradiction. When Butley's dialogue is bullying and cruel, LaMorte's body language says "Don't leave me." When Butley's dialogue turns vulnerable and sad, as when he and his wife discuss their faltering marriage, LaMorte spits his lines out.

LaMorte takes Butley's ambivalence--the source of his wittiest lines, including his quip "I'm a one woman man and I've had mine, thank God"--and raises it to an almost Sondheim-esque pitch. You'd have to be a Butley yourself not to feel pity as you watch him slowly screw up his life.

Kierkegaard once called jokes "the death of an emotion," but in this production pathos proves to be the death of comedy. The problem is that LaMorte is so good at making us like Butley and understand his dilemma that we don't laugh at his best zingers. We wince. Because we know the emotional cost of his quips to himself and his friends, and because we know his jokes are a pathetic defense against changes he's powerless to stop. Which robs us of the opportunity to enjoy, guilt free, the sheer comedy of his lines. It's like being asked to laugh at a man's slapstick fall when we know he's broken his neck.

On the page Butley, stripped of LaMorte's star turn, doesn't seem vulnerable until three-quarters of the way through the play, when it becomes clear he misses his wife more than she misses him. Until then, he's just one more comic character--a raging, witty egomaniac scoring points off his friends and winning laughs at every turn.

How much Center Theater's production will bother you depends on how much you want to laugh at Butley before you feel for him. For many, the sublimely moving final minutes of this play may be enough. But having known more than a few Butleys in my time, I'd hoped for more laughter with the tears.

HOW THE OTHER HALF LOVES

Profiles Performance Ensemble
at Red Bones Theatre

I felt a similar dissatisfaction with Profiles Performance Ensemble's take on Alan Ayckbourn's farce How the Other Half Loves. The story concerns three couples from different economic classes whose lives become entwined when the wife of the wealthy couple begins carrying on with the husband of the middle-class couple. That they all know each other, work for the same firm, and on successive nights have dinner together only complicates the farce.

In the right hands this story could be incredibly funny. But in this production a good 50 percent of Ayckbourn's comedy remains unrealized. Not that the cast don't give the show the old Chicago try--they all work quite hard making their characters seem compelling and real, particularly Joe Jahraus, who shines as the scatterbrained cuckold Frank. It's just that they're all so busy trying to create a realistic drama they forget to take the time to let Ayckbourn's comedy build. Accents are performed correctly, but lines are delivered a touch too slowly or with too little emphasis.

Perhaps it's a legacy of Chicago's much vaunted deep-dish acting that in each of the three Ayckbourn comedies I've reviewed in the past year--Table Manners, Season's Greetings, and How the Other Half Loves--the characterizations have been superb but the comedy has not. Or perhaps it's a measure of how much American actors respect--and obsess about reproducing--British accents. Everyone in this very Chicago cast sports an authentic accent. (Maybe they've listened to so much British comedy that they believe just getting the dialect right will win laughs.)

The main problem is that Ayckbourn, unlike Gray, doesn't construct plays with deep characters; he constructs mathematically exact farces that demand characters only so deep. In fact, many of his plays revolve around people who are the exact opposite of Butley: likable dunderheads, such as Norman of "The Norman Conquests," who get in trouble precisely because they leap and never look. It's impossible to deepen these characters the way LaMorte deepens Butley without distorting the comic plot they inhabit or revealing just how shallow they are.

Still, Chicago companies persist in trying. And Profiles Performance Ensemble is no exception.

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