Lincoln Center Theater’s stunning production of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Nance” is a textbook example of how to put on a classy show. It helps to have a bona fide (and certifiably bankable) star like Nathan Lane casting his glow in the title role of a Depression-era comic who plays “pansy parts” in burlesque shows. Another smart move was booking this period piece into a beautiful old Broadway house. The final coup was entrusting the helming to Jack O’Brien, whose impeccable taste in casting and keen eye for design guarantee a seamless show. There won’t be a quiz, but take notes anyway.
Long time no see Lane onstage. Not since 2011, in fact, when he ankled “The Addams Family” for more lucrative employment in TV and more scintillating stage work in the Goodman’s admired revival of “The Iceman Cometh.” But the Tony two-timer (“The Producers” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”) couldn’t have made his return to Broadway in a more congenial role for his distinctive — and downright irresistible — stage persona.
No mystery about how that bit of serendipity came about, because scribe Beane worked with his star for three years to create the endearing, extraordinary and quite wonderful character of Chauncey Miles. When first met, dear Chauncey is furtively cruising other cruisers in a downtown Automat notorious for its gay clientele. Just showing your face in this joint was an act of bravery in those days, when gays (who were known by other names and considered perverts) were subject to arrest per the order of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who was hell-bent on cleaning up the streets of New York for the 1939 World’s Fair.
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Chauncey reveals volumes about himself in this tight little scene. Through his cautious courting of a young and possibly straight boy from the sticks who seems lost at this Automat, he shows himself to be a kind, intelligent, educated, sensitive and wonderfully witty fellow. But he also exposes himself as a lonely and very needy man, full of self-doubt, even loathing, and quite a bit of confusion about the unorthodox thrills of his rather dangerous life.
Compared to this complex human being, Ned (Jonny Orsini), the young man from the Automat who is more than happy to go home with Chauncey, could use more quality work. In his Broadway debut, Orsini shows he’s more than a pretty face (and other body parts on display in a nude scene), and his avowals of affection for Chauncey are sort of convincing. But Ned still seems more plot device than genuine love interest.
Beane’s intriguing character study turns into a fully involving play when this meet-sweet scene between Chauncey and Ned expands — on a wondrous set by John Lee Beatty that revolves like a magic lantern — to reveal the enticingly tacky (and lovingly lighted, by Japhy Weideman) interior of the Irving Place Theater. Here, Chauncey displays yet another side of himself. On stage and in full costume (Ann Roth did the meticulous period designs) as the effeminate “nance” character in a popular burlesque act, he’s a proficient comedian, a thoroughly confident performer, and a real pro — just like Lane.
Besides enhancing Chauncey’s character, the burlesque house setting gives thematic depth (and a terrific jolt of kick-in-the-pants comedy) to the play. The burlesque skits that Chauncey performs with the show’s top banana, Efram (Lewis J. Stadlen, ever a credit to his clown profession), and with three house strippers played with impressive ecdysiast expertise by Jenni Barber, Andrea Burns, and that Amazonian goddess Cady Huffman, came straight out of the cobblestoned streets of New York and spoke directly to the citizens of that dirty old city. Smartened up in routines choreographed by Joey Pizzi and set to music by Glen Kelly, they still play for fun and they still make a point.
Neil Simon and other writers of great comedy understood in their bones that vintage burlesque sketches — set in scary places like a doctor’s clinic, a lawyer’s office, the courtroom, and the police station — both reflect and relieve the collective terrors that perpetually hover over a city of immigrants. Beane’s clever stroke was to relate those old routines to the burlesque company’s anxiety that their theater would be shut down (for the goings-on in the balcony) and to a persecuted minority’s greater fear of being discovered, disgraced and thrown in jail.
Beane misses a dramatic step only in his hesitant treatment of Chauncey’s conflict about choosing monogamy with Ned over the headier, more dangerous thrills of forbidden sex with strangers. That’s a promising area to explore, but it’s introduced abruptly, late in the show and without advance word. And really, after two hours of being lovable, Lane just won’t let himself go to that dark place.
As Beane reminds us, W.C. Fields, a drunk who played a comic drunk, once referred to Bert Williams, a black man who performed in blackface, as “the funniest man he ever saw, but the saddest man he ever knew.” As a gay man whose comic art lies in playing a caricature of a homosexual male, Chauncey is in the same spot. The best thing about this play is that it’s positioned precisely at this intersection of comedy and pain.
(Lyceum Theater; 918 seats; $132 top)
Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Japhy Weideman; sound, Leon Rothenberg; hair & wigs, David Brian Brown; original music, Glen Kelly; orchestrations, Larry Blank; conductor, David Gursky; production manager, Jeff Hamlin. Opened April 15, 2013. Reviewed April 11. Running time: TWO HOURS, 30 MIN.
With: Nathan Lane, Jonny Orsini, Lewis J. Stadlen, Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber, Andrea Burns, Mylinda Hull, Geoffrey Allen Murphy.