An anguished expression speaks volumes on the face of Nathan Lane, the star of Douglas Carter Beane’s latest play The Nance. As Chauncey Miles, a burlesque “nance” (a stereotypically gay comic stock character) at New York’s Irving Place Theatre (now demolished) in 1937, Lane’s been tasked to capture not just the silliness of Miles’s onstage persona but also the darker shadows of his home life — where the smiles of his slapstick gags wilt and sour under the pressure of a society that just doesn’t understand his brand of humor.
You see, “like a Negro doing blackface,” Chauncey doesn’t just play a nance on stage: he is one. Up under the lights, he’s able to quip a string of double entendres a mile a minute, but once he’s confronted with love, plain and simple, it’s more than he can handle.
Mainly, Chauncey Miles doesn’t quite know how to leave his persona at the stage door. At an automat one night, he meets Ned (Jonny Orsini, serviceable), a handsome, hungry younger man whom he seduces in the distinct code of the time — offering to share his sandwich, then slipping him the plate without letting on his intentions in public. After Ned reveals he’s been staying uptown on Riverside Drive, Chauncey deduces that the fellow must have heard of the automat as a place for discreetly arranged meetings between men. He leaves him a dime under his plate and tells Ned to meet him around the corner in a half an hour if he might be serious about coming him with him for the night. “Don’t say thank you, now,” he tells Ned as he leaves, “or I’ll know it’s over. This way, for the next half hour, I can believe there will be an assignation.”
Ned does indeed meet his older pursuer around the corner (and comes home with him). Once Ned reveals that he’s actually been sleeping on a park bench, Chauncey invites him to stay, disrupting the quiet he’s gotten used to in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment but providing a much needed sexual energy heretofore sought after only in parks and gay-tolerant restaurants. Though their living arrangement is initially billed as only temporary — until Ned gets a job and a place of it’s own — it’s not long before they’re settled in like any other heterosexual pair of the era.
Meanwhile, onstage, Chauncey’s hamming it up as one of the city’s leading nances. Because he’s rumored to be a homosexual offstage as well as on, a new crowd starts heading to the Irving Place Theatre, taking refuge, especially during the female striptease numbers, in the theatre’s balcony. Chauncey’s scene partner in most of the play’s sketches is Efram, the straight man (if you will); as played by funnyman, Lewis J. Stadlen, Efram is one of the play’s comic highlights. Also performing on the stage of the Irving Place are a trio of tired-out hoofers — Sylvie, Joan, and Carmen (the distinctly talented Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber, and Andrea Burns respectively) — who lend comic relief and real-world stakes to the backstage drama aspect of the burlesque scenes.
Inspired in part by the 1995 book Gay New York by George Chauncey (after whom Lane’s character is named), playwright Beane plants a timely obstacle in his protagonist’s way: Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Campaigning fiercely for reelection at the time, LaGuardia and his Republican cohorts began cracking down on the seedier elements of burlesque — especially nudity and the nance (though, ironically, drag acts were immune, as they didn’t hint so overtly at “degeneracy”). When Efram and the girls first get word that another local theatre’s come under fire when city officials attend a performance, they begin to feel the heat. Soon enough, the night comes when LaGuardia’s men are out front in the house of the Irving Place, notepads in hand to record what they see. Chauncey (himself, ironically, a Republican) is encouraged to dream up any sketch he can find other than the nance act, and, for a moment, it seems that he might. Under the hot spotlight though, wracked with indecision, he caves and pulls out his signature lilt and his catchphrase (“Hi, simply, hi!”), thus providing one of the best first-act closers of the season in a straight play.
If the first act is about setting up Chauncey’s struggle in his own personal life but also against the political powers of the time, the second act tracks how he deals with the fallout, especially once Ned begins questioning where Chauncey goes at night (and with whom). Chauncey, who’s been straying from their roost, asserts that he has urges but admits that it’s the act of getting sex, rather than the sex itself, that really satisfying. Ned, able to ignore the world’s backwards opinions, believes they can build a conventional life together. Chauncey’s not so sure, and it’s the tension between them that provides much of the play’s emotional conflict.
Beane’s is a play that satisfyingly delves below the surface of its subject matter. Though its historical flourishes intrigue, part of the production’s brilliance is how seamlessly it transitions from onstage, to backstage, to offstage, in part thanks to fluid set design from John Lee Beatty, and also thanks to Jack O’Brien’s assured direction and a score full of throwback burlesque tunes by Glen Kelly, conducted by an offstage band led by David Gursky. What’s happening onstage reflects and refracts what’s offstage (think Cabaret‘s Emcee and his comments on Weimar life as embodied by Sally Bowles and Cliff). Once that spotlight hits, for the most part, Chauncey’s worldly cares disappear in service of an audience. Until, that is, a moment near the play’s conclusion, when he cracks and lets forth the waterworks, determined even so to charge onward.
Lane, who’s perfectly cast here, mines the comic tradition of his subject to full effect, bringing us a deeply flawed, deeply human character who may be the most vivid of the season in terms of new plays. Chauncey’s adversaries, with the exception of a few cops, remain offstage. When (minor spoiler alert), later, he’s forced to defend himself and his art in a court of law, his testimony takes the form, almost, of a rhetorical sketch, so much is the language of the stage a part of his marrow. All of Chauncey’s pain is summed up there in Lane’s eyes, his brows arched up toward the rafters or the balcony, as if hoping to spy something — love, or maybe the tiniest sliver of hope? — out amongst all the disbelievers in the dark.
If Chauncey Miles is ahead of his time, though, he’s also a captive of it, seeking something else but not quite sure what it is, content to live in the shadows for the time being. In a world where gay marriage seems all but inevitable, his type seems on the cusp of being forgotten. Thankfully, The Nance holds a man like Chauncey — both his onstage and offstage personae — up for inspection, much to the benefit of audiences looking for a decidedly bright spot of truly entertaining, truly affecting drama at the end of this Broadway season.