‘The Nance’ On Broadway, A Review

"The Nance" is playing at the Lyceum Theatre in New York.

Broadway used to be awash in larger than life comic talent – Danny Kaye, Phil Silvers, Zero Mostel, the list goes on. Today we have Nathan Lane and we should be grateful we do.

Mr. Lane’s considerable talents are being lavished on “The Nance” at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre. A fascinating if ultimately disappointing tale of the waning days of burlesque in New York City in the late 1930s, the play is set against the background of a rather nasty brand of homophobia that, alas, didn’t wane until much later.

Chauncey Miles (Mr. Lane) is the “nance” at a seedy burlesque house in what is now one of Gotham’s prime neighborhoods. A nance was an effeminate or sexually ambiguous stock character (think commedia dell’arte) used for double entendre sexual humor. The part was often played by a straight male (not to be confused with a straight man), but in Chauncey’s case, life imitates art.

The play, then, opens a door into two worlds: the raunchy, tawdry, low-brow burlesque milieu, at once quite funny and rather sad, and the gay demimonde that Chauncey navigates with one eye cocked for the cops. These guardians of public morals have a disturbing penchant for harassing homosexuals and raiding their meeting places, even those as seemingly innocent as the Automat.

Of the two, the world of burlesque is the far more entertaining. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane has clearly done his research and I have no reason to believe that the comic routines he has recreated (or perhaps exhumed) are not completely authentic. Mr. Lane and the superb Lewis J. Stadlen, as the theatre’s top banana, pull them off with great style and verve. Many of them are truly funny.

The girls of burlesque, the well-cast trio of Jenni Barber, Andréa Burns, and Cady Huffman, are not glamorized but presented as salt-of-the earth working girls, in the best sense of that term. Their tacky burlesque costumes, provided by Ann Roth, are spot on, as is Joey Pizzi’s choreography. Ms. Huffman, by the way, played the blonde bombshell Ulla in “The Producers” opposite Mr. Lane’s Max Bialystock; both of them got Tonys. Here she is commendably beefier and less idealized.

Also enjoyable in these scenes is the easy-going camaraderie of the company. However clichéd it may be, it lets us believe that there are indeed no people like show people.

We also learn less heartwarming things about this world, such as the fact that gay men frequent the theatre’s balcony hoping to service straight men aroused by the girls on stage. No wonder the prudes got their knickers in a knot!

Which brings us to the flip side of “The Nance,” the closeted world of gay New York in the 1930s and the campaign against burlesque. Here Mr. Beane is less successful, although it must be said he is never less than heartfelt.

Like the depiction of burlesque, this side of “The Nance” is something of a history lesson. We learn of the strained codes and rituals with which gay men were forced to court (if, indeed, that is the right word) in a hostile world all too willing to imprison them on the flimsiest of charges. No wonder the rather improbable (and unsought after) romance Chauncey enters into with the handsome Ned is so fraught. Ned is smitten and seeks the kind of long-term relationship that is becoming so common today. Chauncey is horrified and holds up the brief and sometimes brutal liaisons with which he is familiar as a kind of badge of honor.

Beane has stacked the dramatic deck a bit too tidily to make some ironic points. Chauncey is a staunch conservative Republican who maintains that Mayor LaGuardia’s crusade against “filth” in general and burlesque in particular is simple campaign posturing, which will evaporate after the election. Then, when the crackdown lands Chauncey in the dock, he unconvincingly morphs from below-the-radar queen to poster child for the cause.

In the end, with burlesque banned in New York, Chauncey can’t join his fellow troupers as they flee to the less restrictive New Jersey because he is a convicted “pervert,” condemned by the terms of his parole to stay in Manhattan. Not only that, but he throws away Ned, his best hope for happiness, to embrace the demeaning and dangerous world of anonymous encounters.

If this sounds a bit like soap opera, it is. And the play’s startling final image, while rather effective, is not earned by the script.

John Lee Beatty has contributed a large and ingenious revolving set that takes us from the stage of the burly-Q to backstage, to Chauncey’s semi-subterranean apartment and back again, with the occasional detour to the Automat. Unfortunately, the sheer size of the set underscores the fact that the world it depicts seems so under-inhabited.

I found myself wishing that Mr. Beane enjoyed the luxury of a larger cast so he could introduce us to more of the denizens of both worlds. But Broadway economics being what they are, that was probably never an option. The piece might have been more effective in a smaller Off-Broadway space on a smaller budget, but then could we have had top-flight performers like Mssrs. Lane and Stadlen and Ms. Huffman?

Small though the cast may be they perform admirably under the steady hand of triple Tony Award winner Jack O’Brien. And if ultimately Mr. Beane’s script is less than perfect, it is packed with funny lines and endearing moments, and it is clearly written from the heart. Then, of course, there is Nathan Lane.

I quite enjoyed myself.

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