Nathan Lane plays the title role in The Nance, now playing at the Lyceum Theatre. The play showcases the 1930s era look at homosexuality and stereotypes both in the theater and off-stage. It is the story of Chauncey Miles, a burlesque “nance”, the effeminate comic relief between stripper numbers. Usually the “nance” on stage was played by a straight man, but Chauncey is homosexual in his private life as well.
|Nathan Lane and Jonny Orsini in The Nance|
But in the 1930s, homosexual in private life was not easy. Chauncey is part of a community of sly winks, quick looks and furtive rendezvouses. He is a successful performer on stage, with a close family that knows he is gay. The Nance opens with Chauncey picking up a sex partner in an Automat, Ned a straight looking young man from Buffalo. Ned is broke and Chauncey picks him up as trade, so it is a surprise when Ned wants to stay and be with Chauncey. Chauncey suddenly has to navigate the world of relationships.
The first act is a fun trip through the family of burlesque, watching the nance in action on stage and watching Ned and Chauncey navigate relationships in real life. Outside the theater, the mayor of New York (LaGuardia) is cracking down on burlesque. The strippers and the queer that inhabit burlesque houses don’t present the image Mayor LaGuardia is cultivating for the Worlds Fair City. But it is all still a few steps or theaters away – until it isn’t. And Chauncey can’t help himself from standing up to the hypocrisy.
The second act starts fast, with Chauncey giving a court room soliloquy that is, by turns, funny, biting and painfully honest. But the second act deals with the closure of the theater and the slow implosion of Ned and Chauncey’s relationship – and it is necessarily solemn. Ned is committed to Chauncey, but that isn’t the world Chauncey grew up in. Chauncey is a Republican and sees Commies all around him, what he can’t see is a future as a gay man. He transfers his self-frustrations into critics of Ned.
Nathan Lane is excellent in the role. He is hilarious on the burlesque stage, funny off stage and believable as a gay man who doesn’t really think there is a place for him in the world. As Ned, Broadway newcomer Jonny Orsini is terrific. Born in the wrong time, Ned is hopelessly in love with Chauncey, doomed to be let down. But Mr. Orsini is never down in the mouth, his Ned is fun and excited to be experiencing life. To the very end Ned has trust that life is on the upswing.
The rest of the cast is made up of the burlesque crew, Geoffrey Allan Murphy, Jenni Barber, Cady Huffman and Andrea Burns play the performers. A sort of family, losing the theater crushes their spirit. Ms. Barber as Joan burns up the joint. These players bring the burlesque stage to life in a riot of colors, feathers and bad jokes.
The Nance is an interesting and entertaining show, but a little long. The second act runs towards the maudlin and, despite the excellent portrayals, you just want it to wrap up already. Director Jack O’Brien and playwright Douglas Carter Beane have brought a great new play to life, shining a light on the recent past.
Playwright: Douglas Carter Beane
Director: Jack O’Brien
Cast: Nathan Lane, Jonny Orsini, Jenni Barber, Andrea Burns, Cady Huffman and Geoffrey Allan Murphy