BUTLEY, Writers’ Theatre Chicago. Simon Gray’s dark, witty portrait of a once brilliant English professor, Butley, now going to seed contains a trap for unwary directors: the first act is funny, the second is not. Going for laughs in the first hour will make Butley seem a fascinating if manipulative comic rogue. But then audiences don’t know what to do with the many misfortunes that befall him in the second act, when laughter is no longer an option.

Directors who downplay Butley’s myriad funny lines, however, or use them–as Kate Buckley does in this finely tuned production–to indicate the depth of his bitterness and his precarious mental state will end up with a show that’s much more moving and satisfying than any mere comedy. It helps to have a performer as able as William Brown in the role of Butley. An adept comic actor, he could have turned the first act into a nonstop laugh machine–his performance in the Writers’ Theatre production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives several seasons ago was funnier than anything I’ve seen at Second City in years. But Brown knows that good comic lines have a dark side; played right, they reveal the pathos behind the guffaws.

Brown’s performance paves the way for the actors playing more serious characters: Butley’s fed up ex-wife, his exasperated colleagues, and his long-suffering ex-lover/office mate, all of them played to the hilt by Buckley’s excellent ensemble.

–Jack Helbig