No custom-made suit could fit Nathan Lane quite as beautifully as the role of Chauncey Miles in Douglas Carter Beane's ambitious and affecting new play, The Nance, now being presented by Lincoln Center Theater at the Lyceum Theatre. And just like a supermodel, Lane returns the favor by showing off every detail of this tailored garment. His multilayered performance may be the finest of this brilliant showman's long career.
Chauncey is a celebrated performer in the waning days of burlesque (the play is set in 1937) who specializes in being the Nance, an effeminate gay character who is the butt of sexual jokes and the master of the double entendre. But unlike many of his counterparts, Chauncey is also a real-life homosexual — one who seeks the comfort of strangers he meets in parks and local automats. And who (mistakenly) has little use for F.D.R. and unwisely puts his faith in Republican mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
Chauncey's seemingly settled life quickly becomes upended, first when he meets and falls in love with Ned (Jonny Orsini), a sweet-natured, attractive younger man from Buffalo, and later when LaGuardia and the establishment begin cracking down on burlesque for showing loose morals and deviancy. After taking a surprisingly political stand — and suffering consequences for his actions he somehow doesn't expect — a disheartened Chauncey begins to spiral downward. For all his proud protestations, by the play's end it's clear that he has been so indoctrinated by society's view of gay men that he doesn't believe he deserves personal or professional happiness.
Beane's complex script alternates between Chauncey's offstage and onstage life, which is shared by Ned (who becomes part of the burlesque troupe). Also taking part in each of Chauncey's worlds are slightly homophobic actor Efram (the very fine Lewis J. Stadlen), and Sylvie, Joan, and Carmen, a trio of socially conscious strippers (marvelously embodied by Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber, and Andréa Burns). Large sections of the 2 ½-hour play are devoted to the burlesque skits that feature a mix of Beane's trademark, pun-filled humor and jokes older than Methuselah, and that you might hate yourself for laughing at!
But it's the final sketch — a devastating solo turn by Lane, performed in drag as wizened prostitute Hortense— that proves to be the play's pièce de résistance.While the entire play rests partially on Lane's uncanny ability to be as effective a tragedian as he is a comedian, his ability to switch between these two roles practically in the same breath comes most into play in these unforgettable few minutes.
Indeed, for much of The Nance, Beane wants us to laugh, cry, and think, often at the same moment, which is not always an easy task. Moreover, the political rhetoric occasionally gets a bit heavy-handed, and a few of the jokes, no matter how hilarious, seem anachronistic. Fortunately, ace director Jack O'Brien knows just how to modulate the proceedings. And one could hardly ask for a finer physical production than the one provided here, especially John Lee Beatty's sublime rotating turntable set and Ann Roth's perfect period costumes.
O'Brien also deserves high praise for guiding the excellent performance of Orsini, who makes an auspicious Broadway debut (and one that will surely generate talk for the actor's willingness to physically bare it all). It's impressive how Orsini neither overplays Ned's initial innocence nor his later disappointment. Most important, he not only dramatically holds his own opposite Lane in their one-on-one scenes, but he generates believable romantic chemistry between them.
Perhaps Beane's greatest triumph is that Chauncey and Ned develop into an odd couple you actually root for, even as you know deep down that this story is unlikely to end with the words "they lived happily ever after." The Nance is a far different type of fairy tale.