Nathan Lane, who wears both theatrical masks with aplomb, couldn't ask for a better excuse to exercise his inner Emmett Kelly, the sad clown, than what Douglas Carter Beane has provided in The Nance, which bowed April 15 at the Lyceum.
A nance, in burlesque parlance, was a conspicuously fey gay, usually played by a straight during the twilight days of vaudeville. Then, there was Lane's Chauncey Miles, who really was gay but passing for straight in Republican clothing.
Big Brother in the form of The Little Flower was watching intensely in New York of 1937, hoping to weed out the pansies from the local stage and sanitize the city for the great influx of tourists expected two years later at the New York World's Fair. It was an oppressive time for homosexuals, and the major black mark on Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's administration. Chauncey's one refuge from encroaching reality was in his work, mincing about the stage flinging double entendres with italic precision, and this was about to be denied him—his specialty act with no fallback.
As his options diminish and his future darkens, Chauncey's self-loathing kicks in and he joins his own lynching party, jeopardizing a loving relationship that has formed unexpectedly between him and a young automat pickup named Ned. Ned puts up a good fight for the man he loves and provides the emotional core of the story.
All this is phrased as a hot-and-cold-running tragicomedy, with this spiraling descent punctuated by broad, bawdy burlesque routines that Beane has adapted for the occasion from vintage vaudeville, and Lane throws himself into them with unbridled glee. For his character, and the audience, the theatre has never looked more inviting and welcoming, a cozy and safe harbor from life's slings and arrows.
It's hard to imagine a director better qualified to helm this story than Jack O'Brien, who has always demonstrated an abiding affection for theatrical lore past and present. The Nance was tantamount to license to kill. "You don't get an opportunity like this every day," he noted at the after-party in the Marriott's Westside Ballroom.
"Doug Bean's a really funny writer, and he's capable—like most of us—of doing something well, but he has other things that he does well, too," he said. "He really took a chance with this piece and opened himself up and explained a lot about us to ourselves and where we came from. You're having a good time, you're laughing, you're seeing this burlesque vaudeville stuff—then suddenly it kicks you in the ass. I know it's a mix, I know it's complicated, and I don't give a damn. I'm proud of it."
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