The Nance is a heavenly vehicle for comedic singer/dramatic actor Nathan Lane, who plays 1930s vaudeville performer Chauncey Miles in the Lincoln Center production now at the Lyceum Theatre on 45th Street. Supported by an exceptional ensemble – Jonny Orsini (Ned), Lewis J. Stadlen (Efram), Cady Huffman (Sylvie), Jenni Barber (Joan), and Andrea Burns (Carmen) – Lane’s powerful performance moves us from belly laughs to tears.
Douglas Carter Beane, it has been reported, wrote the play with Nathan Lane in mind. Who better to portray a caricatured “Nance,” burlesque’s stereotypical, effeminate “pansy” (usually in vaudeville played by a straight man), who spurs on laughs with double entendres and one-liners between female strip acts. Beane has delivered an amazing play and the director, Jack O’Brien, with Glen Kelly (Original Music), Joey Pizzi (Choreography), John Lee Beatty (Sets), and Ann Roth (Costumes) have brought together a magnificent conceptualization with a tragi-comical punch line at the play’s symbolic conclusion.
The theme – the tension between what is real and what is pretense – threads through the production staged on a revolving platform upon which Lane’s Chauncey unfolds his existence. The sets and action revolve between his “pansy” antics onstage (poignant and real) to his faux offstage life where the action takes place in an automat and the privacy of his apartment.
The conflict begins when Chauncey, with carefully nuanced signals to hide his intentions from the police, lures beautiful down-on-his-luck Ned back to his apartment. Despite Chauncey’s desire to remain solo, he allows Ned to stay with him because he is falling in love. Ned’s authenticity encourages Chauncey to be his truthful, real self. As the play develops, Lane’s brilliant portrayal takes Chauncey from the cynical, conservative persona, the “straight act,” into a loving, caring Chauncey. In between scenes of his offstage relationship with Ned, we watch the gifted and funny “Nance,” who is seen as such by the culture but who we understand is the tragic-comic clown/fool. The act is Chauncey’s outlet for his real life that he must cloak in secrecy. But because Ned’s love has forced Chauncey to confront his faux existence, he no longer wants to hide who he is.
Beane reveals the evolution of Chauncey’s character and Lane is spot-on as he unhappily struggles to contend with the duality of his existence, then throws it off, embracing a new identity. This new identity empowers him but unleashes his rage against prudish, hypocritical Paul Moss, Mayor La Guardia’s watchdog who, to stop “indecency,” closes down “perverse” Nance acts.
Moss and the La Guardia administration have labeled as perverted the love that healed Chauncey’s soul. Like an artist out of his time, Chauncey’s empowerment is as doomed as his act. The critical irony of the play is that the more Ned and Chauncey receive authenticity from each other, the more their straight “act” falls away. This jeopardizes their lives and both must be sacrificed on an altar of oppression.
When Moss shows up one night to monitor the Nance act, Chauncey, lathered in fury, provokes his own arrest and in-jail brutality. Though he makes it out of jail, Chauncey has lost hold of his ordered former existence where he could easily move himself in and out of offstage illusion and onstage reality. Chauncey must survive: he has “to get his act together” and leave show business or live his former life of duality. The problem is Ned, and their relationship, which he must end.
Onstage, the act which had once been more real than his offstage life has taken a turn into hyperbole. He becomes Hortense, a rather freakish and unfeminine drag queen. We understand how the drag act stifles Chauncey’s real impulses when, during a Hortense bit, reality intrudes and Chauncey breaks down. He has lost himself, Ned, and the freedom to love. But the oppressive show must go on. He recoups after a long pause and with a one-liner gets a belly laugh. The audience gets what they came for, an hour to forget their troubles. And this tragic fool on the stage? He gets to see the curtain going down on a most wondrous part of his life and his ability to be real anywhere.
The playwright has aptly woven the notes of Chauncey’s character into perfect writing, and Lane hits every single one of them with a sledgehammer, nailing down Chauncey’s spiritual coffin. By the end, as Chauncey packs up his paraphernalia to return home, there is a huge crash: A fixture drops nearly on his head just missing him. He looks off, staring into the future. When I first saw the production, I missed an important detail that I caught the second time I saw it sitting in the front row: the black shadow of a rope tied in a noose, swinging high from the backstage rafters.
The symbolism is furtive, with multiple meanings. Certainly, the shadow suggests the LaGuardia administration’s unforgiving and brutal noose-tightening around homosexuals, a cultural attitude which only loosened after hard won battles in the latter part of the 20th century. Or does the noose foreshadow Chauncey’s dubious end at his own hands? Will his bitterness and self-hatred get the best of him one dark night when he decides it is better not to live at all than to live a life of lies onstage and off with no outlet for his soul’s fulfillment?
It’s all there and more in Lane’s and the cast’s performances, in the direction, in the musical numbers, and in Beane’s writing, and it’s marvelous.
The Nance runs through August 11, 2013.
Production photo credits by Jean Marcus.