The Nance, a Lincoln Center Theater production currently playing at the Lyceum Theater, is a very good play that has ambitions to be a great play. Unfortunately, it misses that lofty mark.
Playwright Douglas Carter Beane (The Little Dog Laughed) dramatizes the world of burlesque in late 1930’s New York. He focuses in particular on the role of the nance, an effeminate or homosexual male character that was part and parcel of the stock repertoire of the form. At this time, Mayor Fiorrello La Guardia vigorously sought to close down the burlesque houses -- not just for the striptease but for the nance acts as well – and thus “clean up” the city of lewd behavior.
As the nance Chauncey Miles, Nathan Lane astounds. I am often ambivalent about Lane’s work. While he rightly receives acclaim as one of our stage’s leading comic actors, I have also found his work to be undisciplined and at times borderline self-indulgent in trying to force every last laugh out of an audience. With The Nance, though, he is in top form – what his work in Butley should have been. Yes, there are the trademark one-liners, slow burns, and physical bits of business, but they are all utilized in service of character and story. Lane also does equally well in revealing the complexities, contradictions, and ugliness of Chauncey’s character. In the second act, when Chauncey’s life takes a wrong turn after a run-in with the law, Lane embraces that darkness with a passion and integrity that is quite rare. His ferocity when he confronts his lover Ned (Jonny Orsini) because he, Chauncey, cannot stand the thought of being loved is both brutal and unvarnished.
Lane shares the stage, for the most part, with a strong and talented ensemble. Andréa Burns and Jenni Barber, as two of the women in the burlesque show, add strong comedic support. Lewis J. Stadlen provides texture to Efram, the show’s manager, who constantly navigates his instinctual dislike of Chauncey’s nature with a quiet desire to be ethically responsible. It is Cady Huffman as Sylvie, a performer and committed Marxist, who shines. Her love-hate relationship with Chauncy provides much of the spark and dramatic tension on stage. Her struggles in many ways mirror Chauncey’s own. I was glad that Beane provided such a rich narrative arc and backstory for a character another writer might easily have kept boxed in for easy laughs and sexual puns. Indeed, one of the highlights of the show is how burlesque is portrayed not so much for its seedier qualities (thought that is there) but that it served an important social need as a subversive art form.
The one disappointment in the cast is Orsini as Ned. A nice guy whom Chauncey finds and takes in, Ned never commands attention or focus the way the other five characters do. Ultimately, the problem here rests with the script. By design, he is the male ingénue to serve the plot needs of Chauncey’s life. And so, it never really matters who is on the other end of the table from Chauncey being berated, just so there is someone. There was an opportunity to find some lyricism in Ned’s naivety and simple ways, but that opportunity was missed.
Beane is looking to place his work on the same level as Cabaret and John Osborne’s The Entertainer, and it is here that he is unsuccessful. Both of the other works use a seedy theatrical form as a metaphor for what is occurring in a larger societal context beyond the stage. So Cabaret portrayed the failures of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the National Socialist Party in Germany, and The Entertainer used the collapse of the English music hall tradition to reflect upon the decline of the British Empire during the Crisis of Suez. However, the events of The Nance never feel like they have much of an impact or connection beyond the specific community of New York burlesque. And as reprehensible as Mayor La Guardia’s actions may have been, given what else was going on in the late 1930’s, they hardly rise to the level of misdemeanor. Unlike Archie Rice from The Entertainer, Chauncey only stands for himself.
That said, spending a theatrical evening with Chauncey would be a worthwhile evening indeed. The backstage comedy elements are flawlessly executed, the dramatic moments are honest and cathartic, and Nathan Lane commands both equally well.