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."
O'Brien and his set designer, John Lee Beatty, picked the Lyceum because it came closer to the visual look of the theatre in the play. "We talked about what we were trying to do with this show," O'Brien recalled. "I said, 'I think it's going to need a turntable, which was obvious because we were on stage, then we were side-stage. The only way to do that is with a turntable. He came back with that birthday cake of a set. Usually, you start out saying, 'Let's talk about the relationships. Let's talk about the world underneath.' The truth of the matter is, I said, 'No, we must start with that set and make love to it because, until you know how to go in and out of it like a rabbit warren, change your clothes and come out as somebody else, it won't work."
Beane was unapologetic about the darkness that envelops his second act. "I think people get what's going on. Some were taken aback when it takes its stark turn in Act Two—but it is inevitable. Everything that happens in the second act is prophesized in the first act." Hastening Chauncey's exit from showbiz was a real-life firebrand the playwright unearthed in his research. "Paul Moss was the commissioner of licenses," he said. "I did a ton of research on him. He's, like, my little discovery. According to his obituary and every report I've read, he was a bachelor. In the '40s, basically the theatre community stood up to him and got rid of him. He was a failed producer. It's interesting, his brother—P.S. Moss—built the Broadway Theatre where Cinderella is. His brother was the successful one—Paul, not so much."
"Gay New York," a very detailed and scholarly book covering the same period as the play and beyond, was Beane's main source of research and inspiration, and he saluted the author by naming his leading character after him. "It's a little unreal to have Nathan Lane play a character named after me," confessed George Chauncey, "and to see a play that draws so much on my book. Just to social geography—when he's talking about the places that gays are meeting, cruising and so forth—those are really where they were doing this. The automats were notorious in those days—Bryant Park and so forth. His idea that Ned is going to be 'trade,' going to be a straight guy doing it for some money, and his difficulty in imagining a butch guy like Ned could be queer himself—that all comes out in twentieth-century views."
If you recall his achingly real Butley a few years back, you know Lane is a master of emotional disarray. Here he has cause to run around picking up what's left of his life. He's someone who had to do everything for himself. No one handed him anything.
"Chauncey breaks my heart," the actor admitted. "I'm sorry he can't allow himself to have that relationship. It's all 'I don't deserve it.' I think it's also the times, too. He and Ned are figuring this out as they went along, and he sorta falls into this thing which is supposed to be for a few weeks until he got a job, but, ultimately, when things go wrong in his professional life, he starts to act out and behave badly." Jonny Orsini's performance of the young man who sincerely loves Chauncey moves front and center in this portion of the story and manages to be profoundly affecting.
"Ned," he said, "is completely unashamed to love. He's really simple and brave in that way. 'A relationship means a lot to me. If I love them—it doesn't matter if it's a guy or a girl and it doesn't matter what the circumstances are, it's a wide-open heart, which is such an admirable quality. I really enjoy playing a person like that."
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The director rates a special round of applause from him. "Jack O'Brien works on another level—a higher level, I'm convinced," he contended. "He understands human beings and the nuance of their personality like nothing I've seen before."
Gruff and gravel-voiced Lewis J. Stadlen, who's always at the top of his game whenever he and Lane cross paths on the same stage, barks out the role of the company manager and Lane's sketch-partner in a half-dozen routines. "Through the evening, his main purpose is to survive," he noted. "He's management, and everybody else sorta works for me. There's an arc to the character in that Nathan's character drives me crazy but I can hug him and make peace at the end and realize what a substantive, courageous person he is—and that goes for Nathan, too."
There's a savvy showbiz brashness he has picked up in his theatrical travels, and you can find distant echoes of Sam Levene, with whom he started more than 40 years ago in the original Sunshine Boys. "Y'know, I've always been pretty much of an amalgam of every entertainer that I've ever loved. That's why I gravitated to being an actor, so the idea to be able to play a character and then have six alter-egos in sketch comedy is great. There's some Sam in this. He was my mentor. He'd be really pissed off if I called him a mentor—that was just his cantankerous personality."
O'Brien has encouraged a cozy camaraderie among the cast that is practically palpable. It especially shows in Cady Huffman's pinko-leading stripper, Sylvie. In some zesty dance numbers staged by Joey Pizzi, she and Jenni Barber and Andrea Burns chase the accumulating clouds away and return us to the land of the living. Like Lane, Huffman took a Tony for his bimbo secretary in The Producers. Here, as good-time-gal Sylvie, she shows us what's beyond the pretty packaging, a dimensionally, nominatable performance. "I love that she is a woman who has sorta taken the plight of women, as in being objectified, and put it into her own terms. You know, 'If I'm going to be objectified, I'm going to do it on stage where you all can see me, and then I'm going to be strong and fight for what I believe in—equality, women's rights.' She's found such a power in her own sexuality." Brava, Cady!
Lane's understudy, Stephen DeRosa, had quite a scare the day before opening when Lane took sick, "but he came back full force today," DeRosa was relieved to add. "You can believe my heart was in my mouth. No Eve Harrington, I. No Sarah Siddons Award for me. Nathan Lane is our Merman."
The opening-night luster was provided by two-time Tony winners like Cherry Jones and Christine Baranski, costume designers like Paul Gallo and William Ivey Long, redheaded duos like Cynthia Nixon and Jesse Tyler Ferguson; playwrights A.R. (Pete) Gurney, Paul Rudnick and Jon Robin Baitz; some Cinderella folks, Greg Hildreth who came with Nice Work If You Can Get It's Emily Tyra, and Victoria Clark; Josh Charles from "The Good Wife"; Matthew Maher, late of The Flick; Jason Patric, who had Lane for his musical-theatre camp counselor 37 years ago—"he taught me the jazz hand"; Julie White, a Tony winner for Beane's The Little Dog Laughed; directors David Cromer of Our Town and Walter Bobbie of Chicago; Debra Monk, who just shot an independent film called "Reaching Home"; Mare Winningham, late of Picnic; Victor Garber; Ann's Holland Taylor ("Jack has been my friend and mentor for 30 years"); Linda Lavin with hubby Steve Bakunas; one-man-showoff Mike Birbiglia; and comedienne Caroline Rhea, who was there for "The Holy Trinity" (Nathan, Doug and Jack), cheerfully chirped, "I love Nathan. Glad he's getting a break."
View highlights from the production here!