In the New York City of 1937 re-created in “The Nance,” Douglas Carter Beane’s fascinating new play starring Nathan Lane, eating at the wrong restaurant could get you arrested. The charge would be loitering but the crime being gay. It is in the Automat in Greenwich Village, made to look like one of Edward Hopper’s paintings of urban loneliness, where we first meet Chauncey Miles, a burlesque entertainer and closeted gay man. This particular Automat is where “the boys meet the boys,” as Chauncey explains to Ned (Jonny Orsini, making an impressive Broadway debut), a newcomer to New York who has been sleeping in Riverside Park, and who becomes Chauncey’s latest trick.
The challenge that Chauncey and Ned face in turning their encounter into a relationship is only one of Chauncey’s difficulties. His livelihood in the then-vibrant world of burlesque is being threatened by the mayoral administration of Fiorello LaGuardia, who viewed the stage shows as immoral and was determined to shut them down, conducting frequent raids. Chauncey performs as a Nance, a stock comic character of a homosexual, normally played by a straight man. That Chauncey is performing as such a character, as he himself explains, “is kind of like a Negro doing black face. Which some of them do. Bert Williams did that.”
In a structure reminiscent of “Cabaret,” “The Nance” alternates scenes of Chauncey’s life with the authentic bawdy comic routines and songs of old-time burlesque, performed by Lane with a top banana played by the excellent (as always) Lewis Stadlen and a trio of singing, dancing strippers portrayed to the hilt by Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber and Andrea Burns. The burlesque routines are genuinely entertaining without overshadowing the drama — and, unlike “The Scottsboro Boys,” Chauncey’s “pansy act” is not deliberately repellent; we see why people at the time would find it entertaining, even as we understand the inherent bigotry of it. The set-up takes advantage of both sides of Lane’s talent – the song-and-dance man with the cutting wit, and the dramatic actor.
The character of Chauncey that Beane has created is complex and contradictory in ways that may not be entirely believable – he is supposed to be a conservative Republican and closeted, yet he is shown making an impassioned plea for tolerance and free expression before a judge after he is arrested for his bawdy stage act. There is a complete conflation of the oppression of homosexuals with the policing of burlesque that seems too pat and unexamined. Some of the lines the playwright puts in the mouths of his characters spell things out in ways that are too obvious. I also sense he doesn’t get right the vibrant, scary, idealistic political arguments of the 1930s. But these are all quibbles. “The Nance” is a first-rate production overseen by director Jack O’Brien, taking full advantage of the wonderful skills of the creative team, such as scenic designer John Lee Beatty, who creates a series of rotating sets that bring us on stage, behind the stage, in Chauncey’s Hell’s Kitchen apartment, and costume designer Ann Roth, who takes us back to the 1930’s.
Douglas Carter Beane is also represented on Broadway this season with the new book for “Cinderella,” the weakest aspect of that show. He redeems himself by presenting a world in “The Nance” that seems just as unlikely – but one that actually existed.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged in a slide show
By Douglas Carter Beane; directed by Jack O’Brien; choreography by Joey Pizzi; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Ann Roth; lighting by Japhy Weideman; sound by Leon Rothenberg; music by Glen Kelly; orchestrations by Larry Blank; conductor, David Gursky; stage manager, Rolt Smith; hair and wig design by David Brian Brown; managing director, Adam Siegel; production manager, Jeff Hamlin. Presented by Lincoln Center Theater, under the direction of André Bishop and Bernard Gersten. At the Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street, Manhattan, (212) 239-6200, telecharge.com. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.
Cast: Jenni Barber (Joan), Andréa Burns (Carmen), Cady Huffman (Sylvie), Mylinda Hull (Rose), Nathan Lane (Chauncey), Geoffrey Allen Murphy (Charlie), Jonny Orsini (Ned) and Lewis J. Stadlen (Efram).