The Nance

Douglas Carter Beane, prolific playwright with a comic twist, brought Broadway  a revised book to Cinderella just weeks ago, and here he is again with an original play about another kind of title character. This one is The Nance. The term has virtually disappeared from use, but it once referred to actors who played effeminate men with mincing accents that made fun of homosexuals, which was fine with the general public because these characters were laughing at themselves and forcing us to laugh along with them.

Many of those who played these characters were gay men, but some were not. Beane’s play concerns itself with  Chauncey Miles, one of the gay ones, a comic star at the Irving Place Burlesque House in the last day’s of New York burlesque, before Mayor LaGuardia decided they were bad for human consumption.  Tacky as the shows were, with a combo of Damon Runyonesque comics, Nances, and a bevy of second rate strippers who couldn’t quite make it to the big time with Minsky, the Ziegfeld of Burlesque, they offered respite to a large group of gents who found a laugh or two in them. and release from their humdrum lives.

To play Chauncey, we are blessed with Nathan Lane, who is among the last of the legit theatre’s true stars. No movie star he, dropping in for 16 weeks to “return to his roots,” Mr. Lane has ventured off from time to time for visits to the large silver screen and the smaller one of television, but his true bent is for the stage,  and we’re lucky that he agrees to share himself with all of us who prefer our theatre live.

Lewis J. Stadlen, Cady Huffman, Nathan Lane and Jonny Orsini (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Lewis J. Stadlen, Cady Huffman, Nathan Lane and Jonny Orsini (Photo: Joan Marcus)

In this play he has taken a familiar character, the clown with the heart torn out of him, the self hating man who can only survive if he can vent his spleen on his friendless world by making it laugh at him.  The character may be familiar; he is related to Tonio in Pagliacci, and to Tony who desperately orders himself a mail order bride in They Knew What They Wanted, but Chauncey’s offstage life is specifically his, and it’s a world about which most of us have little knowledge.

In a time when “coming out” meant leaving home to go to a dinner party or to play with friends, homosexuals lived in catacombs, always in danger of landing in jail, forced to live in the closet or face the law. So it is that Chauncey discreetly arranges his romantic moments in underground establishments like Horn and Hardart Automats, and the hidden but secretly known watering holes about town.  No matter how carefully one behaved, there was always danger of the cops raiding the place, and sticking you in jail for  “disorderly conduct,” “soliciting” or “indecent exposure” even if none of the above ever happened. Any gathering of men was suspect, and onstage any reference to gay life, unless oblique and double-entendred, was anathema.

Nathan Lane as Chauncey (Photo: Hiab Narcus)

Nathan Lane as Chauncey (Photo: Hiab Narcus)

We first meet Chauncey at one of the favored Horn and Hardarts, where  he does discreetly have a talk with a young man, freshly arrived in Manhattan, and by scene’s end, they’ve gone off separately, but with a plan to  meet together “around the corner in a half an hour”.  In the ensuing scenes, Beane takes us backstage and onstage at Chauncey’s theatre, to his cozy but dingy apartment in the basement of a crumbling Greenwich Village house and into a courthouse.  John Lee Beatty’s settings completely convey the 1930s underworld, the total opposite of the world of Philip Barry and S.N. Behrman whose 1930s comedies all unraveled on or near Central Park West and the Upper East Side of Manhattan or their equivalents in other swanky neighborhoods.

Chauncey and Ned, his pickup, become involved, and ultimately Ned becomes part of the troupe of players who inhabit the only mildly funny sketches that fill the bill between the teases for which men frequent the burlesque houses.  A number of gay men attend, and when the strippers go into their acts, they can often be found fooling around  in the balcony.

The play bounces nicely from low comedy on stage, to soap opera backstage, to a genuine play of value in the new lives of Chauncey and Ned at home. Chauncey is much loved by his fellow players, particularly by Efram, his vis-à-vis on stage, played by Lewis J. Stadlen, who has brought zest and imagination to low comedy characters ever since he showed up as Groucho Marx in Minnie’s Boys 43 years ago. His clearly drawn “Efram” is a third rate but self-supporting comic who is just beginning to tire of the very tired material he’s stuck with at the theatre. But he’s made an outside life for himself, and he wishes he could help his friend Chauncey find one  before it’s too late.

Ned, the young man who has moved in, is the refreshingly odd grown up who wants a stable and monogamous life with Chauncey, and the play, as it moves along, deals with whether it is too late for Chauncey to recover from his need for punishment for his dreadful beginnings, for the curse his father left upon his head. An odd couple, this, for it’s the attractive younger man who wants stability, the older one who craves promiscuity. These later scenes are beautifully played by newcomer Jonny Orsini and the star. This is young Orsini’s Broadway debut and a very welcome one it is. He has all the natural charm and good looks of the young Paul Newman and this co-star role gives him the opportunity to play fast and loose  as well, feeding Mr. Lane as good as he gets in several engaging scenes climaxed by the final one, which is very moving.

Lest we forget we’re in the world of burlesque, we are treated to three divas on the bottom rung of the diva ladder. There is no “Tessie Tura” here, no “Miss Mazeppa”, no “Electra” present (the 3 star strippers in Gypsy). We have plain Carmen, Joan and Sylvie who bounce on and off now and then with a not very bright ditty that reminds us that the entry ticket was only a quarter. They probably  understand that you “gotta get a gimmick” but the ones they’ve gotten are not so hot. Carmen has decided to be a Latin Tomato though she’s really from Brooklyn, and as she’s played with great glee and a delightful attitude by the always enchanting Andrea Burns, Carmen is a plus all evening long.

Sylvie re-unites Cady Huffman with Nathan Lane, for the two of them cavorted in the smash hit The Producers (in which Lewis Stadlen played Nathan Lane’s role in the national company of the same show, just to show you how incestuous this business can be). Ms. Huffman is still tall, gorgeous, and proud, applying herself to the dingy material she has as though it were gold from Cole Porter. Jenni Barber’s Joan is the cute little sprite of a performer who offers girlish glee more than sensual nuance to her work, and clearly the regular customers at the Irving Place Theatre ain’t complaining.

The play does have a larger reach than its grasp. Mr. Beane is stretching a bit with this one; he’s dealing with a couple of complicated characters who have been badly hurt by life, and whose pain is revealed in a number of telling ways.  Nathan Lane may have his own demons on which to draw, but from whatever source, he is more affecting here than I’ve seen before. He was always funny, but for the most part, his plays didn’t care to ask why.

The peripheral characters are merely written as sketches, which diminishes the size of the play a bit; it comes close, but doesn’t quite match, the force of John Osborne’s The Entertainer. But it does offer its star a role that he plays with the same distinction as did Laurence Olivier with his Archie Rice in the Osborne play.  I suggest we take out an insurance policy on Nathan Lane. He appears in a show almost every season and if he chooses to ignore us in the future, we should be protected.

The Nance is onstage at the Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street, New York, NY 10036. Details and tickets

Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.

Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz:

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