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Theatre in Review: The Nance (Lincoln Center Theater/Lyceum Theatre)

Jonny Orsini and Nathan Lane. Photo: Joan Marcs

Like most great artists, Nathan Lane's technique has grown simpler and more refined with age. Time was when he would scurry about the stage, expending epic amounts of energy in search of his next laugh. (He usually found it.) Now, he gets the same effect with a raised eyebrow, a turn of the head, a pregnant pause. His dramatic turn this season on the CBS series The Good Wife was a masterpiece of understatement; he never raised his voice, yet every line reverberated with the emotions his character couldn't express. In The Nance, he brings down the house repeatedly, with the apparent minimum of effort.

Fortunately, Douglas Carter Beane has given Lane a richly complicated character, one with a real mouth on him. He is Chauncey Miles, a comic in the waning days of burlesque. On stage at the Irving Place Theatre, where he plies his seedy trade, he is fully armed with jokes so old that even in 1937, the year the play takes place, they sported beards. Nevertheless, Lane gives each wheezing gag the kiss of life. Off stage, he proves equally entertaining. "Darling, how is this going to be anonymous sex if you keep giving me your name?" he asks airily, trying to put off further intimacies with his bed partner of the evening before. Eyeing a bottle of champagne dubiously, he wonders, "Was this morning a good year?" Recalling a failed act, he says ruefully, "The Lindbergh baby trial got more laughs."

And yet, for all its hilarity, The Nance is really an elegy -- for a form of entertainment, a moment in history, and, most of all, for Chauncey Miles, who works as a nance, a showbiz term denoting a comic who swishes for laughs. (The term might be unfamiliar, but the type is surely not. In the movies, the character actor Franklin Pangborn embodied the concept. On Broadway and television, Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly kept it going well into the '70s and '80s.) Unlike most nance performers, however, Chauncey really is gay, which, he admits, is a little like "a Negro doing blackface." Onstage, he minces, camps, and waves at the audience, delivering one double entendre after another. His signature line, "Hi, simply hi," is accompanied by a limp-wristed wave of the hand and the tinkle of a little bell.

Chauncey is a major draw, but his career is in big trouble. Mayor LaGuardia wants the city cleaned up in advance of the World's Fair, and the city-appointed Moss Commission (run, Chauncey acidly notes, by a nattily dressed "confirmed bachelor") is shutting down theatre after theatre; even the fabled Minsky's, home of Gypsy Rose Lee, isn't safe. The Irving Place Theatre has been targeted because Chauncey's act is drawing too many confirmed bachelors who then retire to the balcony for more private activities. But Chauncey, a lifelong Republican, insists that the Moss Commission is mere political theatre. "This will all be over soon," he says over and over.

It will be over soon, but not in the way that Chauncey means. His downfall begins in the Greenwich Village Automat, a prime pickup spot in the '30s. As staged by Jack O'Brien, the carefully choreographed hookup rituals of the era, all designed to escape the notice of the law, are brought vividly to life. A look or an accidental collision of elbows signals an invitation. A hat carefully placed on an empty seat is a sign to go away. The sound of a police siren causes everyone to freeze, scanning the street for signs of trouble. Yet, for men like Chauncey, such restrictions carry their own erotic charge; as he notes, not knowing if the young man he is eyeing is sincere, a cop, or a straight thug looking for a mark is all part of the excitement.

As it happens, the young man in question, Ned, is more sincere than Chauncey can grasp. Only 23, Ned has fled Buffalo and a loveless marriage, hoping to start over again in New York. Chauncey takes him home for the night and is surprised to discover, the next morning, that Ned, ignorant of the usual protocol, isn't prepared to run out the door. He is looking for friendship, and maybe even love. Both reluctant and intrigued, Chauncey agrees to set up housekeeping with Ned, even getting him a job as a straight man, delivering lines on stage at the Irving Place. For a time, Chauncey revels in a relationship unlike anything he has ever experienced. But when the Moss Commission closes in, leading to his arrest and worse, he finds that he cannot escape the roles assigned to him on or off stage.

The action of The Nance moves between the Irving Place, where the sketches offer increasingly pointed commentary about free speech, and real life, where an attempt at organizing the show business unions against the Moss Commission flourishes briefly, then fizzles. Chauncey's conservatism proves his undoing; unable to recognize the threats to his career and personal happiness, he takes foolish risks, refusing to tone down his act and, when arrested, speaking too candidly to a judge. He is a complex figure -- by turns pitiable, hilarious, brave, and self-destructive -- and Lane binds all of these seemingly contradictory strands into an unforgettable character portrait.

In O'Brien's impeccably acted production, Lane also gets plenty of support. Ned is a somewhat idealized figure, an avatar of future attitudes, but, as played by Jonny Orsini, it's easy to believe that he is truly innocent of the world and the cynical adjustments men like Chauncey have been forced to make. (The scene in which Chauncey turns on Ned, savagely informing him that he doesn't want a wife, he wants "trade" -- a risky and anonymous bed partner -- is suffused with heartbreak.) Lewis J. Stadlen, for 40 years one of Broadway's most reliable clowns, partners superbly with Lane in the show's many burlesque routines, most notably an uproarious version of the classic sketch "Niagara Falls." (Even if you think you've never seen it, you have.) Cady Huffman is a tower of strength as a no-longer-young stripper who also happens to be a card-carrying communist. Andrea Burns provides plenty of caustic commentary as a stripper with high-concept staging ideas, for example appearing swathed in balloons, which she proceeds to pop, one by one.

From the moment the curtain comes up on an automat rendered as a melancholy Edward Hopper tableau, The Nance emerges as the best-designed Broadway play of the season. The turntable of John Lee Beatty's set keeps turning, revealing the interior of Chauncey's dumpy apartment with its scattered decor; a courtroom; backstage at the Irving Place; and on stage, where the acts are backed by some beautifully painted drops. Looming over some locations is a forced-perspective collage of buildings and period advertisements. For sheer evocative atmosphere, Beatty's design is impossible to beat. Japhy Weideman's lighting carefully notes the difference between the harsh glare of everyday sunlight and the pastel prettiness of period stage lighting. Ann Roth's costumes provide both authentically detailed examples of everyday period wear, right down to the seamed stockings, and amusingly tacky burlesque costumes. Leon Rothenberg's sound design includes police sirens, courtoom gavels, and understated reinforcement for the show's small pit band.

For all of its abundant laughter, The Nance is a melancholy evening; even its most amusing scenes have a strong undertow of sadness. The world is changing fast for Beane's characters, and only the most flexible will adapt. The final image, of Chauncey alone in an empty burlesque house, is hard to shake off. The Nance is a powerful reminder of how thoroughly attitudes about gay people have changed in this country over the last several decades. It's also a touching tribute to those who couldn't survive the changes. "Are you a nance?" asks Stadlen in sketch after sketch. "But that doesn't mean I'm not a good person," Lane replies. Or a brilliant actor, for that matter.--David Barbour

(22 April 2013)

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