Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Review: The Nance

The Nance, Douglas Carter Beane’s new play, is a lively portrayal of the social, sexual and political turmoil of 1930s New York City. Burlesque is in its heyday, verging on family entertainment (albeit with a PG-13 rating). In presenting a burlesque troupe facing immorality charges, Beane shows a time of relative permissiveness and tumult that flowered in the years before World War II.

Chauncey Miles (Nathan Lane) is a popular comedian who we meet cruising at a local automat. His interest is piqued when Ned, a handsome, starving young newcomer pours catsup into a cup of hot water. Ned becomes our proxy as Chauncey teaches him important shibboleths of his worlds. He explains the rules of camp and cruising, how to stay under the radar of the law, the distinction between pansies and trade, and after an unsuccessful attempt to end their one-night-stand, introduces Ned to his burlesque family.

The Irving Place Theatre where Chauncey works is filled with familiar types: the Jewish top banana, the smoldering Latina, the sassy redhead, and the dumb blonde.  Chauncey plays the Nance, a pansy comic character as familiar and popular to contemporary audiences as were the drunken Irishman or the emotional Italian. All agree that Chauncey’s following is responsible for the sold-out houses. Unfortunately his popularity also brings its share of problems. Rumors that Chauncey doesn't just play a pansy, but (breaking with tradition) actually is one means gay men are a big part of his fan-base; when they’re not relishing how much he’s getting away with in his act, they’re in the balcony 'providing relief’ to straight men riled up by the parade of female flesh. Mayor LaGuardia and his City License Commissioner, ‘confirmed bachelor’ Paul Moss, perhaps motivated in part by an upcoming election, begin targeting burlesque houses, with special attention for their lavender element.
Lewis J. Stadlen, Cady Huffman, Nathan Lane, Johnny Orsini

For the most part Beane has created vivid, detailed personalities, and set them in a world rich with period detail. In this he is ably supported by Ann Roth’s costumes, Japhy Weideman’s lights, and John Lee Beatty’s turntable set. (One of my favorite moments near the end has the shuttered theater rotating into view, with the sound of the mechanism--masked by music at every other transition--now creaking and groaning eloquently.) Glen Kelly’s original music conjures the style of the time so well, I had originally assumed the songs were all period standards. The playwright also uses some of the comedy standards of the day effectively. Burlesque, like its (slightly more respectable) sister, Vaudeville, evolved from artists appropriating one another’s routines, modifying them whenever possible to accommodate their trademark shtick. Plagiarism was rarely taken seriously, and once an act had been around long enough, no one could credibly claim authorship anyway. In this context the playwright was all but obligated to freshen up some of the old routines. When I was twelve, I sneaked a viewing of a classic burlesque show on a friend’s cable TV during a sleep-over; one of the few sketches I remember from that clandestine viewing is used in the play to great advantage. And if there were any doubt that these bits have soaked deep into our culture, my date reminded me that Bugs Bunny does a version of it too.

Director Jack O’Brien and his excellent cast keep things snappy and taut, finding variation in the different worlds they inhabit without letting the tempo or language slacken. My date and I agreed that it’s hard to picture this play with anyone other than Lane in the title role. Chauncey has a Wildean wit off-stage while his onstage persona is painted in broad strokes, bawdy, loud, the swish turned up to eleven.   But the offstage persona also had his dramatic moments, and the swishy comic knows to employ a light touch with a double-entendre, even—or especially--one punctuated with a rim shot. Finding an actor equally comfortable with all these colors may make future productions difficult. Lane wears the role like a second skin, even occasionally papering over slight seams in the writing. One wonders if the role was written with him in mind. I think the play is sturdy enough to have a life without Lane, but his contributions may never be matched. 

Though his role is much quieter, the part of Ned may cause similar problems. He’s a young man from upstate, fleeing an ill-considered marriage, seeking his tribe. As written he’s a quick study, with a kindness and sense of self remarkable in someone so young and untried. We learn Chauncey is not his first time with a man, but even so he takes to the life (not to mention the job of a burlesque comic) with an equanimity that could strain credulity. Any concerns he may feel about the social and legal risks of joining the gay demi-monde happen off-stage, if at all. Nor does he need to sow any wild oats; he falls deeply in love with Chauncey, who begins to find his abdication of his ‘trade’ status and demand for fidelity tiresome. Ned could read as a device, a fairy tale prince who Chauncey is too self-loathing to appreciate, but Johnny Orsini gives him full dimension and makes his granite integrity believable and charming.
Johnny Orsini, Nathan Lane

Cady Huffman is also a stand-out as the Communist Party member Sylvie.  She is sharp enough to match wits with the Republican Chauncey, and honest enough to admit it when the party lets her down. The bickering and teasing between Sylvie and Chauncey does the most to show how much this troupe has become a family, people who love and respect each other, even when disagreeing fiercely on political issues. Huffman fulfills this role with a sexy bravado. 

The play tackles issues that will seem all too familiar. What are our personal lines in the sand? When does our self-respect demand defiance? How do we reconcile our ideals with political expediencies? But it also captures the exuberant joy of burlesque at its best. That said, it seems only fair to warn people that anyone hoping for female nudity will be disappointed. With the focus firmly on the comedy acts, the  stripteases are rarely more than brief transitions between scenes. Fans of male nudity, on the other hand, will be pleasantly if briefly surprised.

The Nance 
by Douglas Carter Beane, 
directed by Jack O'Brien
produced by Lincoln Center Theater 
Lyceum Theatre


  1. Thanks Patrick! This is the first review that makes me want to see this.

  2. I want to see it too! Very nicely written review, Patrick.

  3. Great review, pal. I'm keen to see it now, as well.