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TWO critics' darlings were cut down last week, and both are behaving in ways that tell us a lot about who they really are. Backstage at the Booth, home to "Butley," everybody's walking on eggshells around Nathan Lane. The great Broadway star has, according to one source, been in a "vile mood" ever since critics complained he was miscast as the bitter, dissolute, bisexual English professor in Simon Gray's slashing drama.

"The name Alan Bates must not be spoken," jokes a production source, referring to the late, celebrated British actor who created the role in the 1971 play and to whom Lane was unfavorably compared in some reviews.

Lane's dark moods are legendary around Broadway. He has the classic comedian's personality - brilliantly funny onstage, black and brooding, off.

What he's brooding about right now, people close to him say, is that Broadway audiences (and some of the critics) seem to have pigeonholed him as a comic actor and musical theater performer.

After the poorly received revival of "The Odd Couple" last season (for which his co-star Matthew Broderick caught most of the critical flak), Lane deliberately set out to alter that perception. And so he chose "Butley," a tragedy, though one with a lot of witty lines along the way.

Yet, says a source, it's obvious that "Butley" audiences "keep expecting him to break into song, and they seem disappointed that he doesn't."

Lane will live to fight another day: "Butley" opened with a $3 million advance, a testament to his box-office drawing power. Ticket sales have slowed since the reviews came out, but investors expect to get their money back. And anyone who's seen Lane in such plays as "The Lisbon Traviata" or "Love! Valour! Compassion!" knows he's a first-rate dramatic actor.

I, for one, can't wait to see his Lady Macbeth.

Over at the Brooks Atkinson, that other critics' darling who was dinged last week - Twyla Tharp - is taking a f - - k you attitude. Literally.

The day after her new musical "The Times They Are A-Changin' " opened to the worst reviews of any show this season, Tharp gathered her cast together onstage and said (according to someone who was there): "Look, we didn't get what we were hoping for but f - - k this! We're staying here and we're going to fight!"

Tharp did feel "battered" by the reivews, but she's not one to crawl under the covers feeling sorry for herself. She told the cast she was going to be at the theater every night, prompting Michael Arden, one of the show's stars, to jokingly break down in tears.

The cast adores Tharp, but she's a taskmaster who routinely hits performers with reams of notes.

Jokes an insider: "These kids are sweating their guts out every night, and she'll go backstage and say: 'You should do those splits five seconds faster.' "

Tharp's producers are joining the fight. They've slashed their weekly overhead, rolled out a television commercial and are vowing to keep the struggling show on the boards at least until the end of the year.

"We'll see what happens," says a production source. "But right now, nobody's talking about closing."

Copyright 2006 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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