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In The Nance, Douglas Carter Beane undertakes an archeological investigation into the homosexual subculture of late-1930s New York, which in itself seems an audaciously unfashionable enterprise in this age of gay marriage and increasing social acceptance. Perhaps the playwright’s intention was to remind today’s complacent audiences of the injustices of an intolerant society. If the ambitious play ultimately doesn’t dig deep enough to find the ideal balance between its delirious low comedy and pathos, at the very least it provides a tremendous vehicle for Nathan Lane.
The actor stars as Chauncey Miles, a burlesque headliner at the Irving Place Theatre, whose specialty is playing the nance. That popular so-called “pansy act” of the time involved a mincing, effeminate performer spouting outrageous double entendres in comic sketches, either opposite a straight man (in both senses of the word) or a female floozy making futile attempts at seduction. While this campy stock figure was usually played by a heterosexual actor, Chauncey is actually a gay man – “kind of like a Negro doing black face,” as he describes it – who frequents the city’s known cruising spots looking for sex.
That underworld of coded behavior and clandestine assignations is superbly drawn in the play’s opening scene at a Greenwich Village Horn & Hardart food-service automat, evocatively recreated by set designer John Lee Beatty. Flipping through his Variety without missing a beat of the furtive comings and goings, Chauncey places his hat on the chair next to him to signal “not interested.” But he swiftly removes it when scruffy young pretty boy Ned (Jonny Orsini) shuffles in. Pegging the green out-of-towner as gay-for-pay “trade,” Chauncey dazzles him with his elegance and erudite conversation before inviting Ned back to his apartment, a process involving careful subterfuge lest they be observed leaving together.
The engine of Beane’s play is the unlikely relationship between the two men and the struggle that ensues for deeply conflicted Chauncey, whose hardened self-loathing has made it difficult for him to love or to accept that he deserves to be loved. But Ned, who has left behind a marriage upstate to explore his true sexual inclinations, falls hard; his emotional openness and unquestioning devotion win over the hesitant older man.
The shy blossoming of their romance is beautifully played by both actors in their first post-sex scene in Chauncey’s basement apartment, with a lovely mix of carnality, humor and tenderness. From the start, Beane and Lane make it evident that Chauncey habitually hides his feelings behind his wit.
The playwright adopts the deft structural device of alternating real-life scenes with burlesque-act interludes of comedy and song that satirically echo what’s happening offstage. Ned eventually becomes involved in those vignettes when the abrupt departure of a secondary player leads to him being incorporated into the company.
Making resourceful use of Beatty’s ingenious revolving set and Ann Roth’s spot-on period costumes, director Jack O’Brien mines comic gold out of these scenes — the hoarier the gags, the funnier. He has assembled first-rate troupers to conjure the old-time showbiz milieu. Efram (Lewis J. Stadlen) is the hard-bitten emcee and lead comic, while the resident strippers are jaded wiseass Sylvie (Cady Huffman), ditzy blonde Joan (Jenni Barber) and “Latina” spitfire Carmen (Andrea Burns), who’s pure Noo Yawk beneath the fake accent. But as reality and stage antics begin to blur together, the juxtaposition falters in its effectiveness.
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, as part of his re-election bid, imposes a crackdown on indecency via his City License Commissioner Paul Moss, an unseen figure who looms large. Burlesque houses in general become a target, but particularly nance acts that cross the line into perceived lewdness. Chauncey’s popularity in the show draws a gay crowd, members of whom retreat to the balcony for their own illicit entertainment, giving the Irving Place Theatre added notoriety. But rather than toning down his act, as Ned and their fellow performers suggest, Chauncey becomes more emboldened, queening it up and directly baiting Moss in the audience.
In plays like As Bees in Honey Drown and The Little Dog Laughed, as well as musicals like Xanadu and the current revamped Cinderella, Beane’s strength has always been writing clever comedy. It’s admirable to see him stretching himself here, and in territory clearly of deep personal interest. But the play often seems to be straining for a poignancy that doesn’t come naturally.
This is also true of the somewhat schematic political content. Beane makes Chauncey a staunchly conservative Republican, amplifying the degree to which societal rejection has fueled his abnegation of happiness and self-respect. But this seems a mechanical overlay, especially when paired with Sylvie’s lefty radicalism. Which is not to say the drama is unaffecting. Chauncey’s stage soliloquy late in the action as a fallen woman named Hortense – drag being more acceptable under censorship restrictions than “deviant” nance routines – is a gorgeously melancholy bit of double-edged comedy that sets the tone for the play’s haunting ending.
Beane might have bitten off more than he can chew here, resulting in a work that needs editing and tries to be too many things – including perhaps the suggestion that the bad old days bred a singular kind of bravery and strength of character in gay men, but also an addiction to danger that was at cross-purposes with the hunger for love. Monogamy-averse Chauncey sabotages his union with Ned in part because his relationship to sex has always been that “the getting is better than the having.” That thread might have benefited from closer examination.
Whatever the flaws of the play, however, O’Brien’s hand-crafted production is never less than absorbing, and the performances are terrific. Particular standouts are Stadlen, whose unfiltered gruffness offstage nicely contrasts with Efram’s professional shtick; and Orsini, who gives the romanticized role of Ned infectious joy, purity of heart and aching vulnerability. But the entire cast is persuasive as figures from a specific time and place.
Doing his most rewarding work on a New York stage since the brilliant 2009 Broadway revival of Waiting for Godot, Lane is masterful, finding new depths in a well-worn sad clown persona. Few actors do droll quite so deliciously, and Beane has given Lane plenty to feast on with both a complex character and a load of flavorful dialogue. But it’s the restraint with which he etches Chauncey’s bitterness and battered dignity that distinguishes the performance.
Venue: Lyceum Theatre, New York
Cast: Nathan Lane, Jonny Orsini, Lewis J. Stadlen, Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber, Andrea Burns, Mylinda Hull, Geoffrey Allen Murphy
Director: Jack O’Brien
Playwright: Douglas Carter Beane
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Music: Glen Kelly
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
Orchestrations: Larry Blank
Choreographer: Joey Pizzi
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater
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