Partly a history lesson, partly a laugh riot and partly a gay weeper, “The Nance” is an ambitious new play by Douglas Carter Beane that does not coalesce into a completely persuasive drama. Thanks partly to a vivid performance by Nathan Lane in the title role, director Jack O’Brien’s evocative production usually makes the most of Beane’s troubling look at homosexual existence in Manhattan during the 1930s.
The 110 year-old Lyceum, where Lincoln Center Theater’s premiere opened on Monday, is a perfect Broadway house for the drama since much of it unfolds within a venerable theater used for a second-rate burlesque show back in 1937.
Amid the strippers, one of the attraction’s headliner comedians is Chauncey Miles, whose specialty is his naughty “nance” act as a stereotypically effeminate gent. With his signature “Hi, simply hi!” greeting, accompanied by twiddling fingers above an elastic wrist, Chauncey is hilariously expert at dealing out bawdy double-entendre comedy.
Chauncey is expert as well in the shadowy games that men were forced to play in those darker days when gay behavior in public was savagely repressed by the police. Coded language and carefully choreographed gestures were needed in order to make sexual connections. The drama’s opening scene, set in an Automat, observes Chauncey warily pick up Ned, a handsome young newcomer to the city.
What Chauncey is not so great at is enjoying a steady relationship. After Ned proves to be a fine fellow who cares deeply for Chauncey, the comedian eventually turns out to be more enamored by the chase in general than in maintaining a domestic life with somebody special.
The times further affect Chauncey’s life when New York City officials crack down on burlesque shows. The moral authorities particularly condemn nance acts and Chauncey’s willful flaunting of their edicts results in a police raid, a trial and the potential shuttering of his show.
The playwright sharply contrasts the sorrows of Chauncey’s offstage world against the raucous humor of burlesque. Beane brightly reassembles a number of vintage comedy sketches of the “Niagara Falls” ilk that are loaded with old-time verbal gags that still produce ample gusts of laughter. Beane also depicts the backstage camaraderie of the strippers and comics that allows Chauncey some personal satisfaction.
So there is plenty of substance to appreciate in the seriocomic “The Nance” – perhaps too much for one play to thoroughly accommodate. The contradictory aspects of Chauncey’s mindset are not sufficiently explored and the ways in which social pressures influence his actions also needs greater illumination. It would be helpful to learn more about Chauncey’s backstory and how he came to develop his craft.
Nathan Lane’s wonderfully layered, poignant, subtle performance in the laugh-clown-laugh role of Chauncey is compelling. Late in the play, when the comedian is reluctantly camping in female drag, the range of underlying feelings that Lane suggests is remarkable even as Chauncey nails one gag after another. The hilarious, hoary burlesque exchanges that Lane blithely trades with the top banana played by Lewis J. Stadlen, a longtime expert at classic comedy, comprise a particular delight of the show.
Skillfully employing a top-flight ensemble and an imposing set designed by John Lee Beatty, Jack O’Brien’s smart staging wallpapers over some of the cracks in the drama. The unsettling quality of the opening scene is matched only by the stark sadness of the conclusion, while in between them the play alternates in many shades of dark and light moods.
Always a breath of fresh air, Cady Huffman is zesty as an outspoken stripper with Communist ideals. Andrea Burns and Jenni Barber present warm portrayals of other burlesque artistes, while Jonny Orsini is easy to love as the goodhearted Ned. Designer Ann Roth’s period costumes and Japhy Weideman’s atmospheric lighting contribute to the production’s visual effectiveness.
Set upon a turntable, Beatty’s setting revolves to disclose various parts of the theater, Chauncey’s shabby basement apartment and the Automat, all of which are detailed with considerable charm. A five-member band brassily plays Glen Kelly’s tickle-toe tunes and punctuates the jokes in the comedy bits.
A thoughtful and compassionate study in the forgotten ways of the metropolitan world of the last century, “The Nance” is a flawed yet rich play that offers a great deal of heartbreak and hilarity.
“The Nance” continues through June 16 at the Lyceum Theater, 149 W. 45th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.lct.org.