Douglas Carter Beane's new play "The Nance" opens with Nathan Lane hungrily looking around an automat. It is 1937 in New York and he's not there for the food.
Lane, who portrays a lonely burlesque performer in the play that opened Monday at the Lyceum Theater, is there on his off-hours to try to pick up a man — any man, really. It's an assignation that city officials frown upon in these closeted times and so everyone has to be careful or they'll end up in jail.
He spots an attractive younger man and offers him part of his sandwich. "I warn you, it is ham," Lane's character says, always ready with a quip. "I'm an actor, that might be considered an act of cannibalism."
This furtive dance at the automat — dangerous and funny and with its own careful rules — is a taste of a more quiet and thoughtful labor of love for a playwright lately more associated with such splashy shows as "Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella" and "Sister Act." Directed with subtlety and tenderness by Jack O'Brien, this is a bittersweet tale of repression and rebellion wrapped up in a valentine to a lost theatrical art form.
Beane's hero here is a "nance" — a show business term for a stereotypically camp homosexual man — who is struggling both with his own identity and frustration at society's hypocrisy toward homosexuality amid the dying days of burlesque, which had to follow its own strict rules and patterns — pasties and G-strings on the girls — or its performers also risked official condemnation.
The two stories Beane is telling are brilliantly connected by John Lee Beatty's rotating set, which takes viewers both backstage and in the seats at a burlesque theater, as well as inside the apartment of Lane's Chauncey Miles. It is another way of exploring the gulf between public and private.
Lane as the tortured soul at the play's heart is magnificent — showing sides that are charming, witty, savage, self-destructive and yearning. While many nances were actually straight men, Miles is a gay man pretending to be an over-the-top, ridiculously limp-wristed fairy, ("kind of like a Negro doing blackface," he says) which makes him sometimes sick to his stomach.
Love comes into his life — or at least it seems that way — when a younger, down-on-his luck man called Ned shows up at the automat and gets picked up by Miles, a complexly written character who staunchly defends the Republican Party despite the cultural crackdowns.
A relationship blooms and Miles even invites the man to live with him and share his stage. Unfortunately, Ned, played with very little shading by Jonny Orsini, is never a true equal to Miles — either on the page or stage — and so their relationship never seems deep or truthful.
The rest of the cast — Jenni Barber, Andrea Burns, Cady Huffman, Mylinda Hull, Geoffrey Allen Murphy and Lewis J. Stadlen — play various small parts at the burlesque theater, whether performers or stagehands. Huffman stands out as a Communist sympathizing dancer who good-naturedly butts head with Miles but ultimately ends up just as jaded as her friend.
The show alternates from dealing with politics — Miles' defense of burlesque and free expression during a monologue in court is a highlight — and the intensely personal, as when our hero must confront why he can't seem to remain monogamous, needing to chase after "boys with a touch of lavender."
One of the best scenes is toward the end when a self-loathing Miles returns to the stage in full-on drag. He has dropped the nance act and is playing an old whore named Hortense. Lane is still funny but seems thoroughly and unbearably broken. It is heartbreaking.
In his refreshingly original play “The Nance,” Douglas Carter Beane reflects on the dying days of burlesque and a gay comic torn between a new love and old ways.
While he’s at it, Beane gives Broadway favorite Nathan Lane a juicy character made to match his dual gifts for loose-lipped clowning and sad-eyed heartbreak. Lane squeezes the role for all its worth.
The play, presented by Lincoln Center at the Lyceum, marks Beane’s second show this year merging politics and romance. The first was his revised book for the musical “Cinderella.” This is a different sort of fairy tale.
Set in 1937 New York, the action follows Chauncey Miles (Lane), a performer with a niche role in a ragtag theater company. Chauncy plays the nance — a stock character who was a flamingly effeminate homosexual. “I like to play with the organ,” quips Chauncey. “I love, love, love when the organ swells? Oh, you brutes.”
It was fine to swish and dish on stage, but it wasn’t okay to be gay offstage. A kiss between two men could get them pummeled by police and tossed in the clink. All the more so, thanks to Mayor LaGuardia’s morals crackdown in advance of the World’s Fair.
Enter Ned (Jonny Orsini), an adorable, naive young man who becomes a part of Chauncey’s life and the burlesque act. Ned challenges Chauncey to try monogamy, but the unencumbered Chauncey has known only a free-range lifestyle, which brings both danger and thrills.
The action moves from burlesque theater where bawdy acts play out, complete with a tatty orchestra, to Chauncey’s Village apartment to a downtown automat where Chauncey trolls for assignations. John Lee Beatty’s evocative set spins its way to each location.
Lane has won Tonys for musical star turns in “The Producers” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Under Jack O’Brien’s assured direction, he’s funny, sad and touching as the conflicted Chauncey.
Newcomer Orsini makes an auspicious Broadway debut and startles with the sweetness and authenticity he brings to the role.
Lewis J. Stadlen is gruff and hilarious as Efram, who runs the burlesque show. Filling out Ann Roth’s cheeky stripperwear are Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber and Andrea Burns.
Beane, a writer known for streaming jokes and contemporary comedies like “The Little Dog Laughed,” digs a bit deeper. He looks back at a time in New York that could have never imagined gay marriage being a hot topic before the Supreme Court and in Crate & Barrel his-and-his wedding registries.
Beane has given himself a tall order in a play mixing social and personal commentary. The domestic scenes between Chauncy and Ned are a bit too pat and cute. Chauncey’s political conservatism is little more than a slim source of irony.
But after a steady diet of Broadway plays that are all about dysfunctional and sitcom-style families, “The Nance” is a welcome departure.
If your public personality is the same as your personal one, you can safely be yourself, right?
Not so for Nathan Lane’s character in Broadway’s “The Nance.”
His Chauncey Miles, a burlesque performer in 1937 New York, is famous for playing a “nance” — a fey, mincing stereotype of an effeminate gay man. Problem is, Chauncey really is gay. And that’s not easy at a time when two men chatting in a public place could be arrested for “degenerate disorderly conduct” or “the old standby — loitering.”
So Chauncey is cautious when flirting with young, guileless hunk Ned (Jonny Orsini) at the Automat. It’s not long before a one-night stand turns into a love affair, and the upstate bumpkin settles in Chauncey’s basement pad before joining him in the revue.
Drawing from his experience with both plays (“The Little Dog Laughed”) and books for musicals (“Sister Act,” “Cinderella”), Douglas Carter Beane weaves together the characters’ lives and their numbers, inspired by real ones, at the Irving Place Theatre.
There, Chauncey is paired with Efram (Lewis J. Stadlen), with whom he trades rimshot punch lines and risqué double entendres. “I like to play with the organ,” Chauncey says, about hymns. “I love love love when the organ swells.”
With his hunger to entertain and his precision timing, Lane reminds us why he’s a vaudevillian master in those scenes. He could ham it up even more, though, as he did so flamboyantly in the film “The Birdcage.”
There’s also little sense of titillating sleaze in Jack O’Brien’s staging, which is saying something considering the comic routines are interspersed with hootchy-kootchy bump and grind, backed by a five-piece band.
Card-carrying Communist Sylvie (Cady Huffman, the curvacious Ulla of “The Producers”), Latin from Manhattan Carmen (Andréa Burns, “In the Heights”) and blond bombshell Joan (Jenni Barber) shake their va-va-vooms with gusto, but it all feels a little too clean-cut.
This fuzzy feeling is echoed backstage, where everybody miraculously gets along. The staunchly Republican Chauncey is pals with Red Sylvie, while Efram huffs, “I don’t think the pansies should be applauded, but I don’t think they gotta get punished.”
The crew closes ranks when the La Guardia administration launches a crusade against burlesque joints. Ned, Chauncey’s young paramour, will be OK: He’s comfortable with his sexuality and even lands a gig in a legit show. But Chauncey belongs to the past, riven by self-loathing and mourning the death of burlesque.
By the end, he’s all out of quips, with nowhere left to hide. It’s curtains for a man and a whole chunk of New York history.
A spotlight works like a face-lift on Chauncey Miles, the title character of “The Nance,” the strained if heartfelt new play by Douglas Carter Beane, set in the twilight of burlesque. As portrayed with shiny expertise and dark conviction by Nathan Lane in a production that opened on Monday night at the Lyceum Theater, Chauncey looks every year of whatever age he may admit to, and then some, whenever he’s not onstage.
But put him before an audience in the seedy theater where he plies his trade in the late 1930s, and the haggard Chauncey becomes as bright and rosy as a pink light bulb. The anger and anxiety that creased his face in the wings have been exchanged for a contented, commanding smoothness. Never mind that Chauncey is now playing a mincing caricature of the gay man he is in real life. For as long as the comedy sketch lasts, he’s in charge, at home and at ease.
Mr. Beane has said that when he conceived “The Nance,” he envisioned Mr. Lane in the leading role. You can understand why. Among Broadway’s marquee names, Mr. Lane is the sole avatar of a spirited comic tradition that stretches back to vaudeville and is associated with stars like Eddie Cantor, Bert Lahr and Phil Silvers.
Like them, he has a puckish signature persona that automatically makes people smile and reads big, even from the balcony. But before he became a Tony-winning song-and-dance star in shows like “The Producers,” Mr. Lane had demonstrated a brooding dramatic intelligence in plays that included Terrence McNally’s “Lisbon Traviata.” He has since taken on classic angry middle-aged-man roles in Simon Gray’s “Butley” and in Eugene O’Neill’s “Iceman Cometh.”
This Janus-faced persona makes Mr. Lane a natural for the divided soul that is Chauncey, and he doesn’t disappoint. Moving between his natural and artificial selves in increasingly adverse circumstances, his Chauncey flips the on and off switch so often that it finally short circuits, to devastating effect.
But even Mr. Lane can’t reconcile all the disparities Mr. Beane’s script asks him to weave together. By the show’s end, Chauncey has become both an eloquent hero in the fight against censorship and a crusty defender of the status quo, a figure of illuminating self-awareness and benighted denial. It is to Mr. Lane’s credit that he displays no signs of whiplash, but his audience may not be similarly immune.
“The Nance,” a Lincoln Center Theater production directed by the estimable Jack O’Brien and featuring a fine supporting cast, is the most ambitious work to date from Mr. Beane, whose other credits include the revamped book for the current “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” and the sharp-witted comedy of manners “The Little Dog Laughed” (2006). Like “Dog,” in which a closeted movie star falls for a male hustler, “The Nance” portrays a necessarily secret love affair between an actor, Mr. Lane’s character, and another man of rougher edges, appealingly played by Jonny Orsini.
But the works that “The Nance” most directly brings to mind are the musical “Cabaret” and John Osborne’s 1957 drama “The Entertainer,” in which stylized stage acts reflect the hypocritical heart of a society. Like Archie Rice (famously embodied by Laurence Olivier), the faded music-hall star of “The Entertainer,” Chauncey belongs to a theatrical genre that is nearing its end and refuses to admit it. His desperation, like Archie’s, becomes increasingly evident onstage.
Both Chauncey’s private and public selves come under attack when the La Guardia administration begins cracking down on burlesque houses, and particularly on acts featuring the effeminate, innuendo-laden stock character that is Chauncey’s specialty. That this performer is really gay of course exacerbates the tension.
It is Chauncey who makes the observation, in the play’s first scene, that a gay man portraying a nance is “kind of like a Negro doing blackface.” But self-knowledge, in this case, is not redemptive. Chauncey continues to perform, and seemingly revel in, his nance act at the Irving Place Theater, while offstage his self-contempt poisons his chances at happiness with the handsome and loving Ned (Mr. Orsini), the callow young man he lives with.
Mr. Beane, Mr. O’Brien and their creative associates have obviously done their research. As a document of both a vanished form of theater and forbidden love in an age of repression, “The Nance” — which has been designed with beautifully shabby flair by a team that includes John Lee Beatty (sets) and Ann Roth (costumes) — has been shaped with imaginative empathy.
The opening scene, in which Chauncey picks up Ned in an automat, provides a terrific shorthand introduction to an underground culture, with its coded language and furtive signals. Mr. Lane, dapper and guardedly brazen, is at his best here.
It’s fascinating to see the same kind of duality translated into the doubles entendres of Chauncey’s act, where he plays professional limp wrist to a top banana named Efram (Lewis J. Stadlen, who is excellent) and a triumvirate of strippers given robust life by Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber and Andréa Burns. (As choreographed by Joey Pizzi, they offer a grittier sense of the old-style ecdysiast’s art than any routine from “Gypsy.”)
In its offstage scenes “The Nance” adheres to a period sensibility in less felicitous ways. Though they have a sexual and political specificity that would have been verboten in the 1930s, they also bring to mind the clichés of showbiz soaps from that era, in which alcohol, temperament and self-hatred drive a talented star to the skids.
You fully expect the virtuous Ned, who is too good (and good-looking) to be true, to exclaim: “Don’t you see? You’re throwing away happiness with both hands!,” and he all but does. And Chauncey’s big scenes of flaming righteousness, in which he tells off a courtroom and his audience, don’t tally with the character of a self-described conservative who has so carefully lived his life under the radar.
“Do you really function under the delusion that you matter or have a say in things?” Chauncey says viciously at one point to his fellow burlesque performers. “I tell you it’d all be so tragic if it weren’t so comical.” Mr. Lane shouldn’t have to say that line, or many others in the same vein. His performance captures both sides of that theatrical coin all on its own.
Nathan Lane has always been a walking, talking (singing, dancing, joking, dazzling) embodiment of both comedy and tragedy masks. Unless one has followed his career from the serious start, however, it can be easy to pigeonhole him as that funny little Tony-winning icon with the trumpet-voice and intimations of a mean streak.
So even when material lets him down, which it finally does in "The Nance," Douglas Carter Beane's splendidly ambitious but psychologically superficial tragicomedy, it's thrilling to watch Lane bond with a character who demands the full attention of so many gifted layers of him.
Given the untapped gay history in its fascinating subject, the play and the Lincoln Center Theater's loving and meticulous production promised to be both important and entertaining. Lane is Chauncey, who plays a "nance," the stereotype gay flounce, also called the "pansy part," persecuted by the city in the last days of New York '30s burlesque. The twist here is that nances were almost always played by straight men and Chauncey most definitely is not one.
The first scene is riveting. Chauncey sits at a table in a downtown automat famous, as he puts it, as a "place where the boys meet the boys" in an especially oppressive time. Gestures between customers are codes. Everyone is wary of undercover cops. Chauncey hooks up with Ned (the appealing Jonny Orsini), a hungry, handsome, small-town man fleeing a wife.
The turntable under John Lee Beatty's ingenious set makes a turn and, bam, we're watching Chauncey transformed with exaggerated swishing and double entendres in a burlesque sketch -- complete with live offstage band. We meet the straight comic co-star (wonderfully played by longtime Lane co-star Lewis J. Stadlen) and the three chickies -- including the oldest dame, played like a sweet amazon by Cady Huffman (Ulla to Lane's Max in "The Producers").
And there we have it. We know the problem and we know the characters. Although many dramatic scenes and burlesque skits follow, we don't really get to know much else.
Jack O'Brien, a master of both knotty Tom Stoppard plays and musical-comedy hits, seems the perfect director to get into the marrow of the wisecracking characters and the hilarity, or at least poignancy, of the routines. But the low-comedy burlesque, recreated in part from archival footage, gets redundant and, despite Ann Roth's priceless costumes, starts feeling like filler in place of emotional digging.
So much is unexplored here. Is Chauncey a Republican just so Beane can make gay-Republican jokes? Does Beane make the hunky young Ned insist on monogamy just to make a contemporary case for commitment? Most of all, how does Chauncey avoid the self-loathing of his parodies? When arrested, he makes an outrageously brave courthouse speech. Even Lane, at the top of his game here, can't make us believe that one.
No living stage actor can make an audience laugh more adroitly than Nathan Lane. His wry line shadings, priceless expressions and expertly timed pauses have produced some of Broadway's funniest moments in recent decades.
So it's happy news that Douglas Carter Beane's The Nance (* * * out of four), which opened Monday at the Lyceum Theatre, offers Lane the juiciest role that he has had since 2001's The Producers. Here he's cast as Chauncey Miles, a burlesque performer who deals in naughty gags and racy double entendre and whose wit proves just as sharp, if more dry, offstage.
But be warned: Nance is no comic romp. The title refers to a stock character in the 1920s and '30s, who would affect effeminate mannerisms modeled on homosexual stereotypes. Most performers were heterosexual men; Chauncey is an exception.
That means that in 1937, when the play is set, his dating options are limited by the prying eyes of police officers and other potential snoops. A proud, elegant man who claims to savor furtive encounters, Chauncey snickers about his dilemma but, on the surface, doesn't seem wounded by it.
Then he meets Ned, a handsome, earnest young man who has just left behind a loveless marriage in Buffalo. Chauncey discreetly takes him home, with no intention of having him stick around. But Ned is smitten — so much so that he turns down a prospective apartment to move in with Chauncey and finds work at the burlesque theater. His plain speech and artless good nature endear Ned to the troupers, who accept Chauncey and him as a couple.
But the relationship is threatened by Chauncey's fears, not just of its inherent risks but of emotional commitment. His professional life also is increasingly under jeopardy as local officials begin to raid the theaters in search of performers they consider morally objectionable — nances, principally.
After a lifetime avoiding conflict, Chauncey finds his courage tested as both an individual and a member of an oppressed community. Beane examines these struggles with grace and compassion; but as things unravel in Act Two, Nance shifts into a more sustained minor key and loses some of its punch.
The mood swing hardly fazes Lane, who is as heartbreaking in Chauncey's bleaker moments as he is hilarious in his burlesque routines. Under Jack O'Brien's vigorous direction, he has superb support from the invaluable Lewis J. Stadlen, as Chauncey's gruff performing partner, and from the musical actresses who play their colleagues — particularly Cady Huffman as a sassy redhead who clashes with Chauncey over politics. (She's a Communist; he's, ironically, a Republican.)
Jonny Orsini is sweetly affecting as Ned, who challenges Chauncey to accept the love of another and, above all, himself. He is repaid in Chauncey's final monologue, a drag skit that turns darkly confessional, inspiring both giggles and tears.
In that sequence, Nance regains its equilibrium — and Lane reaffirms his status as one of the stage's brightest treasures.
Lincoln Center Theater’s stunning production of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Nance” is a textbook example of how to put on a classy show. It helps to have a bona fide (and certifiably bankable) star like Nathan Lane casting his glow in the title role of a Depression-era comic who plays “pansy parts” in burlesque shows. Another smart move was booking this period piece into a beautiful old Broadway house. The final coup was entrusting the helming to Jack O’Brien, whose impeccable taste in casting and keen eye for design guarantee a seamless show. There won’t be a quiz, but take notes anyway.
Long time no see Lane onstage. Not since 2011, in fact, when he ankled “The Addams Family” for more lucrative employment in TV and more scintillating stage work in the Goodman’s admired revival of “The Iceman Cometh.” But the Tony two-timer (“The Producers” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”) couldn’t have made his return to Broadway in a more congenial role for his distinctive — and downright irresistible — stage persona.
No mystery about how that bit of serendipity came about, because scribe Beane worked with his star for three years to create the endearing, extraordinary and quite wonderful character of Chauncey Miles. When first met, dear Chauncey is furtively cruising other cruisers in a downtown Automat notorious for its gay clientele. Just showing your face in this joint was an act of bravery in those days, when gays (who were known by other names and considered perverts) were subject to arrest per the order of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who was hell-bent on cleaning up the streets of New York for the 1939 World’s Fair.
Chauncey reveals volumes about himself in this tight little scene. Through his cautious courting of a young and possibly straight boy from the sticks who seems lost at this Automat, he shows himself to be a kind, intelligent, educated, sensitive and wonderfully witty fellow. But he also exposes himself as a lonely and very needy man, full of self-doubt, even loathing, and quite a bit of confusion about the unorthodox thrills of his rather dangerous life.
Compared to this complex human being, Ned (Jonny Orsini), the young man from the Automat who is more than happy to go home with Chauncey, could use more quality work. In his Broadway debut, Orsini shows he’s more than a pretty face (and other body parts on display in a nude scene), and his avowals of affection for Chauncey are sort of convincing. But Ned still seems more plot device than genuine love interest.
Beane’s intriguing character study turns into a fully involving play when this meet-sweet scene between Chauncey and Ned expands — on a wondrous set by John Lee Beatty that revolves like a magic lantern — to reveal the enticingly tacky (and lovingly lighted, by Japhy Weideman) interior of the Irving Place Theater. Here, Chauncey displays yet another side of himself. On stage and in full costume (Ann Roth did the meticulous period designs) as the effeminate “nance” character in a popular burlesque act, he’s a proficient comedian, a thoroughly confident performer, and a real pro — just like Lane.
Besides enhancing Chauncey’s character, the burlesque house setting gives thematic depth (and a terrific jolt of kick-in-the-pants comedy) to the play. The burlesque skits that Chauncey performs with the show’s top banana, Efram (Lewis J. Stadlen, ever a credit to his clown profession), and with three house strippers played with impressive ecdysiast expertise by Jenni Barber, Andrea Burns, and that Amazonian goddess Cady Huffman, came straight out of the cobblestoned streets of New York and spoke directly to the citizens of that dirty old city. Smartened up in routines choreographed by Joey Pizzi and set to music by Glen Kelly, they still play for fun and they still make a point.
Neil Simon and other writers of great comedy understood in their bones that vintage burlesque sketches — set in scary places like a doctor’s clinic, a lawyer’s office, the courtroom, and the police station — both reflect and relieve the collective terrors that perpetually hover over a city of immigrants. Beane’s clever stroke was to relate those old routines to the burlesque company’s anxiety that their theater would be shut down (for the goings-on in the balcony) and to a persecuted minority’s greater fear of being discovered, disgraced and thrown in jail.
Beane misses a dramatic step only in his hesitant treatment of Chauncey’s conflict about choosing monogamy with Ned over the headier, more dangerous thrills of forbidden sex with strangers. That’s a promising area to explore, but it’s introduced abruptly, late in the show and without advance word. And really, after two hours of being lovable, Lane just won’t let himself go to that dark place.
As Beane reminds us, W.C. Fields, a drunk who played a comic drunk, once referred to Bert Williams, a black man who performed in blackface, as “the funniest man he ever saw, but the saddest man he ever knew.” As a gay man whose comic art lies in playing a caricature of a homosexual male, Chauncey is in the same spot. The best thing about this play is that it’s positioned precisely at this intersection of comedy and pain.