Friday, April 19, 2013

theatre review THE NANCE, Broadway, April 13

Nathan Lane has established himself as one of the leading Broadway actors of our time.  Making himself at home in both dramas, comedies and musicals he has now found a new play that combines all of those into one, Douglas Carter Beane's latest play The Nance.  The play, which Beane wrote with Lane in mind, officially opened on Monday and we caught one of the final previews this past Saturday.

The Nance is set in 1937 Manhattan during the time that Burlesque was on the wane, homosexuals had to be as inconspicuous as possible or risk arrest and Mayor LaGuardia was cracking down on indecency.  Beane sets out to tackle several topics in his play, the end of burlesque and it's impact on those involved, gay life in 1930's New York City and how older gay men and younger gay men perceived relationships differently during those changing years.

Lewis J. Stadlen. Cady Huffman, Nathan Lane and Jonny Orsini
 Nathan Lane is Chauncey Miles, an actor in the burlesque theatre who plays the "nance," a stock vaudeville character, short for "pansy," an effeminate male that was a prominent fixture in burlesque comic scenes featuring plenty of bawdy double entendre and stereotypical homosexual behavior.  While these parts were often played by heterosexual men, Beane wisely has Chauncey be gay, which adds a dramatic and ironic dimension to the play.   The irony comes in two ways- how Chauncey can play an openly gay, swishy character on the stage but be persecuted in his daily life for being gay even though he exhibits none of the stereotypical traits of a gay man and how once the crackdown happens it is alright for him to be in drag on stage but not appear as an effeminate character.

Jonny Orsini and Nathan Lane

Surrounding Chauncey are the people that he works with and the boy he meets at the automat, takes home and eventually asks to move in with him until he can find his own place.  That relationship is especially memorable as it is set in the secretive world of gay men of the 1930's with the signals they would give to each other to identify themselves as gay all while fearing being caught for just being in a restaurant or on the street.  That Chauncey and Ned actually love each other and want to be together is something alien to Chauncey at first and something that ultimately will bring the two men to a crossroads.  But in getting them to that place Beane has crafted a realistic portrayal of what gay dating must have been like at a time when it was almost virtually illegal for a man to love another man and monogamy was almost an unknown word to a gay man.   When viewed in 2013, with all the news reports about the Supreme Court hearings around same sex marriage it is especially meaningful to see how far the nation has come.

While the play portrays a changing world, Chauncey wants to live in the past, a past filled with afternoon trips to the automat to pick up straight men and evenings filled with being on stage at the theatre.  However, all of that is about to change and the heartbreak of The Nance isn't just about the trouble in the sweet and passionate relationship between Chauncy and Ned but also how everything that Chauncey can't let go of in his past and the things he is used to in order to embrace and tackle and overcome the changing world around him.  Add in the fear that Chauncey has about emotional commitment, his almost unwillingness to believe someone could actually love him and the self hatred and self contempt that Chauncey can't get over, even with the love of Ned, with the backstage and onstage antics at the burlesque theatre and you have a play rich with passion, drama, comedy and music.

Nathan Lane, Cady Huffman, Andrea Burns, Jonny Orsini
Jenni Barber and Lewis J. Stadlen

Beane and director Jack O'Brien have lovingly created this production in such a way that it seems like we're in a time machine that has taken us back seventy five years.  The cast has no problem in grounding us in 1937 as well with Lane giving a heartbreaking performance.  The fact that he is playing three different "characters" in a way, the "at home" Chauncey who is funny, passionate and outgoing yet still has some self loathing , the guarded, secretive and discreet "public" Chauncey and the hysterical "nance" Chauncey and that Lane manages to flip between these "roles" in a second shows Lane's abilities as an actor.  Anyone that is familiar with Lane knows his master ability to use a look or facial expression to get a laugh but I can't recall Lane ever being as passionate in a role before, sure he was warm (and hilarious) in The Producers, but this is really Lane's debut in a romantic lead of sorts.  Also, his monologue in drag toward the end of the show is priceless in Lane's ability to combine a serious, confessional of sorts with some hilarious one liners.  Lane doesn't miss a beat no matter what he's asked to do and because of that I truly hope he wins the Tony for this part.

Jonny Orsini is making his Broadway debut as Ned and he not only manages to completely hold his own in his scenes with Lane, but you honestly believe that he loves Chauncey, the new life that Chauncey has helped him create and the new friends he has come to call his own.  He is sweet, charming, passionate and looks great in the bathtub as well.   Lewis J. Stadlen is Chauncey's performing partner Efram and while he looks down on Chauncey's homosexuality he does realize what Chauncey is up against and finds himself willing to help him even though Chauncey finds it difficult to adhere to what Efram requests of him.  That difficulty is what ends up getting Chauncey arrested.  Like Lane, Stadlen is given several comic and serious moments to play, especially around the difficulties in trying to perform their burlesque routines together when the crackdown happens to not do anything that could be perceived as being indecent. Stadlen more than succeeds in the task he's been given and while there isn't exactly a "villain" of the piece, Stadlen sometimes has to portray that part in order to make Chauncey realize what the results of his action might be. Stadlen and Lane performed together on Broadway before and the two of them have a great rapport together so it is especially nice to see them together again and portraying such rich and complicated characters.  
Nathan Lane
Cady Huffman, Andrea Burns and Jenni Barber are the three ladies who work at the theatre and all of them get a moment or two to shine with Huffman especially memorable as the bawdy and sassy Sylvie. 

The period touches to the set by John Lee Beatty and costumes by Ann Roth really take you back to a gritty time in seedy theatres and basement apartments.  The revolving set by Beatty even gets a curtain call of its own in a way.   There is also nice period burlesque numbers written by Glen Kelly that all of the cast has fun performing.  Kelly's humorous strip numbers for the three ladies are especially memorable in the tacky way they are portrayed.

Burlesque would be gone by the early 1940's and I don't know if Chauncey would have been able to survive the changes to his world.  The ending of the play signifies the changes and a warning as such to Chauncey but we are left to make our own decision as to what happens next to Chauncey.

Beane has painted Chauncey as a conservative Republican, always restrained in his actions so when Chauncey has to testify in court, his speech, while thrilling and heroic, is also a bit out of character when compared to the events that happen before and after this scene.  Chauncey has lived his life avoiding conflict, always flying under the radar and struggling with monogamy but now it's as if Beane wants Chauney to be the hero of the times but wants to show the self-hatred he has as well, which don't necessarily jell.    But that is really the only flaw in this piece as while the play doesn't exactly deliver on all that it sets out to accomplish, it is still an interesting story, beautifully told, with a top notch cast and direction and Lane is such a gem that I have to believe he is the front runner for the Tony this year, as his only Tony wins previously have come for musicals. 

The Nance runs through June 16th

Official Site

Rehearsal interviews with the cast:

Brief interview with Nathan Lane:

one of the most famous "nance's" Gene Malin, performs "I'd Rather Be Spanish":

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