Nathan Lane Rules in The Nance

Playing a first-rate conflicted gay burlesque star

Douglas Carter Beane's The Nance (Lyceum Theatre) has got what it deserves from Lincoln Center Theater: a first-rate production, handsomely staged by Jack O'Brien, with a gigantically fine performance by Nathan Lane in the title role. Beane's play deserves these splendid enhancements, not because it's perfect in itself—its premise and many of its smaller points are highly debatable—but because, like far too few plays seen in New York these days, it sets out to wrestle with a big subject, on a big scale, in a wide-ranging, spectacular style that will simultaneously entertain the audience and make it think.

Beane uses the work's value as comic diversion to enrich the dark matters he's dealing with, not to cover them up or distract from them. You must take his play, and argue with it, as a large, rich, substantive whole, not as a string of set pieces in which the fun can be disentangled from the sour realities.

Lane's performance as Beane's hero, the bitter, self-hating homosexual burlesque comedian Chauncey Miles, embodies the complexity perfectly: You constantly watch Chauncey drawing a sharp line between his offstage behavior and the "nance" routine that's made him the main draw at a seedy burleycue house on Irving Place circa 1937. At the same time, Lane, elegantly steered by O'Brien's direction, always shows you how Chauncey's private emotions bleed into his stylized stage business—and, more disconcertingly, how his act's stereotyped postures seep into and warp his offstage life. Having made the twinkle-eyed cartoon swish with the sissified hand-waves his professional specialty, Chauncey is his own dybbuk, a man possessed in life, thanks to his dismissive view of himself, by the role he plays onstage. He is not, you might say, a happy camper.

Nathan Lane and Lewis J. Stadlen ride hard at the Lyceum.
Joan Marcus
Nathan Lane and Lewis J. Stadlen ride hard at the Lyceum.

Beane's approach involves some historical oversimplification. Unlike vaudeville, in which performers built and toured with their own acts, burlesque comedy was more like revue or rep company work. The performers applied their distinctive stage personalities to a string of standard sketches, in which the roles they played depended less on their particular personae than on their status in the troupe: top banana, second banana, or straight man. (The "banana" names themselves derive from one of the most familiar sketches.) "Nancing" wasn't so much a persona as a shtick that every comic could employ as needed, for a "bit" or for a role in a single sketch. In old movies, you can often see the burlesque comics who went on to legit stardom, like Bert Lahr and Phil Silvers, go "girl" for a momentary effect.

Chauncey, however, is all nance, in every sketch. Beane further complicates matters by making him not only a gay man who confines himself to nellydom onstage, but also a fervently ultra-conservative Republican. Chauncey's backstage life at the Irving Place Theatre is bound on one side by Efram (Lewis J. Stadlen), the house's bossy top banana, a homophobe who tolerates Chauncey for his comic gifts and for the cash his camp followers bring the box office, while on the other side lie endless dressing-room spats with Sylvie (Cady Huffman), a vehemently leftist stripper whose solidarity with her gay fellow worker vanishes when he rants about FDR.

Into this already sticky situation, fate throws love at Chauncey one late night in a Greenwich Village cafeteria, in the form of Ned (Jonny Orsini), a penniless young drifter from Buffalo. Their furtive one-night stand stretches into several serious weeks. Ned, who's escaping the youthful mistake of a heterosexual marriage back home, sees the new relationship lasting. Chauncey sees it as provisional but then, anomalously, gets Efram to hire Ned when the troupe's straight man jumps ship.

Ned and Chauncey's trajectory as a couple, living and working together, starts to turn downward just as New York's theater licensing commissioner, a prudish bachelor, starts to make life tougher for the city's burlesque houses, which he claims promote "public displays of immorality." He's backed by Mayor LaGuardia, notoriously iffy on individual rights where moral matters are concerned. (Historically, LaGuardia was also aware that the nation's military buildup was bringing ever-larger, and rowdier, crowds of soldiers and sailors into New York on weekend furloughs.) Irving Place is raided and charged with indecency: Chauncey, expecting his personal conservatism to get him off the hook, instead gets a rude shock. Life with Ned falls apart just as mayoral decree shutters burlesque in New York for good. The last thing we see, ambiguous and ominously symbolic, is Chauncey's farewell to a now-darkened theater.

Questions, though, plague the play's core. Manifestly, a gay man can be a conservative, but how conservative could a gay burlesque comedian, trapped in his own stereotype, really be? When the city's license-revocation threats force the theater to cut down Chauncey's appearances, he exclaims—and Lane plays it as heartfelt truth—"All dignity is removed from my life." Dignity, while making jokes about anal intercourse, with appropriate gestures?

Similar contradictions beset the Chauncey–Ned relationship. Ned, young, handsome, and new in town, demands total fidelity; it's aging, unhappy Chauncey who prefers surreptitious promiscuity. So culturally clueless on arrival that he doesn't even know movie stars' names, Ned quickly becomes an onstage whiz and born mimic. Yet nothing happens to tempt him away or to make Chauncey envious. (And Efram, who dislikes gays, never kvetches about Chauncey putting his boyfriend into the act.) Orsini's sweet sincerity has to work overtime to make it all plausible.

Even so, the thick pileup of material—sex, culture, politics, economics, censorship—makes Beane's play richly exciting. He toggles back and forth between the burlesque stage and the everyday world, with the sketch scenes growing progressively eerier as Chauncey's situation grows more dire, till you're unsure whether to take them as actual stage scenes or nightmares. Lee Beatty's set design and Japhy Weideman's lighting slide increasingly toward the crepuscular, evoking Reginald Marsh's blurry, shadowy paintings of burlesque scenes. The overall production, beautiful without artsiness, makes a fitting home for Lane's authoritative performance, always pitched with perfect precision as it ranges from extravagant, sassy highs to mordant Beckettian lows.

The Nance's accomplishment overrides all its debatable aspects. That it raises so many ideas worth debating, in terms of both history and the present, is a sign of its stature. And that it does so in such a beautifully realized production, with Lane reigning at its center, is a gorgeous rebuke to the mostly shoddy goods surrounding it on Broadway.

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