By: David Sheward
The emotional high point of this Douglas Carter Beane play is the lowest for its title character, Chauncey Miles, a comic specializing in effeminate stereotypes who is gay offstage as well. Late in the play, Chauncey has fallen on hard times. A puritanical city official has clamped down on his act in burlesque, Chauncey has driven away his adoring lover, and he is reduced to playing drag because that’s considered "masquerade" rather than lewd comedy depicting "depravity" like homosexuality.
As Chauncey, Nathan Lane, dressed by Ann Roth as a tawdry stage version of an over-the-hill hooker, stands on John Lee Beatty’s marvelously sleazy evocation of a run-down grindhouse in 1937 Greenwich Village, and delivers hoary-pardon the pun-wisecracks on straight sex. A few about a Romeo deserting his character cause the pitiful performer to break down, but he gathers himself up and goes on with the act. What’s amazing about this scene is Lane is hilariously funny while he breaks our hearts.
It’s a stunning performance combining impeccable comic timing with intense pathos. Lane’s Chauncey believes the homophobic cant of the day. He sees himself as worthless and undeserving of love and the only way he can find it is to get the burlesque crowd, which includes gay patrons, to laugh at him. His much younger boyfriend, Ned, believes there’s nothing wrong with his sexuality, which sends Chauncey into the night seeking quick, anonymous tricks. The split eventually drives them apart, and Lane viscerally registers the loss, though Chauncey tries to hide it with gags and bravado.
That the core of Beane’s script: Chauncey’s struggle to maintain his gay identity on his own terms, limited and twisted as they are. The playwright sometimes lays it on a bit thick with the political overlay, having his characters represent points of view rather than complex emotions. "In 80 years, who’s gonna ask about how we pay for Social Security?" says Sylvie, one of Chauncey’s stripper co-workers with Communist sympathies. Here, as in a few other points, the playwright seems to be speaking rather than one of his creations.
But there are major compensations. Beane is brilliantly witty and knows how to write dialogue that’s simultaneously funny and moving. There’s also the fascinating device of employing burlesque sketches that comment on the real-life action. All these are smoothly and sensitively staged by Jack O’Brien on Beatty’s Edward Hopper-esque revolving set. Jonny Orsini is a sweet Ned, comfortable in his masculinity, yet eager to camp it up with a Tallulah Bankhead imitation. Lewis J. Stadlen as Efram, Chauncey’s straight stage partner, doesn’t shy away from his character’s repulsion to homosexuality and blends it with an appreciation for Chauncey as a talent and a person. Cady Huffman, Andrea Burns, and Jenni Barber earn laughs and admiration as they bump and strut as the strippers. But the engine that drives The Nance is Lane, and he guns it for all its worth.
April 15-Aug. 11. Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission; $37-132. (800) 432-7250 www.telecharge.com