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Review - The Nance

I suppose the problem with being the greatest Broadway comic actor of your generation is that once the label sticks you rarely get the opportunity to prove that you can also turn in great dramatic performances. (Conversely, not since Garbo laughed has anyone been surprised to see a great dramatic actor excel in a comic part.) In Douglas Carter Beane's ambitious, provocative and lovely protest drama/romantic comedy, The Nance, Nathan Lane finally gets to originate the kind of role that highlights what makes him a genuine stage star. He sings, he says funny lines, he plays love scenes... but most of all he perceptively plays a strikingly original character in what will most likely be considered, up to this point, the best stage performance of his career.

Lane appears as Chauncey Miles, a burlesque performer working steadily at a small theatre on Irving Place where he specializes in doing sketches and songs as his "nancy boy" character; a swishy fellow who broadly hints at his homosexuality through double entendres. It's 1937 and New York's Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia wants to clean up the town by closing down the handful of remaining burlesque houses. But charges of indecency are not aimed at the strip-teasers, but rather at sexual innuendo comics like Chauncey who, as one character describes it, attracts gay men to the theatre who take advantage of the "normal" guys in the audience who got excited by the strippers by taking them up to the balcony for some "relief."

Unlike the better-known nance comics of real life, Chauncey actually is gay. With a mixture of ironic arrogance and self-depreciation, he describes his choice of profession as, "Like a Negro doing blackface." (Which did exist.) The play opens with him sitting alone, having a sandwich at an automat (the first of John Lee Beatty's wonderful collection of realistic and atmospheric settings) known to those in the know as a place where older gay men can find a hungry, younger gent in need of a place to spend the night. This must be done, however, through discreet communication in order to avoid arrest. Not for prostitution, but for simply giving the appearance of being gay men - or a less-genial term - in public.

He takes handsome and naïve out-of-towner, Ned (a sweet and charming Jonny Orsini), back to his Greenwich Village apartment for what he assumes will be another one-nighter but the young man has something more long-term in mind and for the first time Chauncey begins thinking that maybe he's entitled to be loved.

Scenes of their growing domesticity alternate with backstage ruckus and onstage hijinks at the burlesque house owned by the gruff top banana comic, Efram, played by another great Broadway clown, Lewis J. Stadlen. When Lane and Stadlen pair up to lead the company in classic burlesque bits like "Niagara Falls," "Meet Me 'Round The Corner," "The Courtroom" and "The Crazy House," The Nance offers some of the biggest laughs of the season. These two old-school pros know that era and style so well.

Jenni Barber, Andrea Burns and Cady Huffman are all terrific as strip-teasers who also bump and grind for laughs in the sketches. Costume designer Ann Roth contributes the right degree of tackiness to their stage costumes and special kudos go to the brassy Ms. Huffman, whose knock-out figure is well-remembered from her Tony-winning sexpot performance in The Producers, for trading vanity for authenticity when wearing tasteless outfits that, appropriately, do not flatter her at all.

Art and politics figure heavily in the offstage scenes. Huffman's Sylvie is a left-wing activist who is confident that the entertainment unions will back their burlesque colleagues against the city's crackdown. Chauncey is a devoted Republican who's sure that his man LaGuardia is just making noise to help his reelection campaign. ("Say something nice about Roosevelt and prepare to have your eyes scratched out") But although he's accustomed to dealing with his private life being illegal, he feels forced to take action when his artistry is declared a criminal act.

Beane is a playwright best known for campiness (Xanadu) and sharp zingers (The Little Dog Laughed), but while his star is granted a wealth of punch lines (Chauncey describes his dressing robe as "Anna May Wong's wet dream.") they come in the context of a clever man using his wits as a defense against a world where he feels continually rejected. Even while Lane is getting laughs he keeps his character's anguish close to the surface.

If the playwright stumbles a bit, it's with two monologues that, while sufficiently effective, seem a bit too familiar and could use some strengthening to create the impact they're no doubt capable of making. The first has Chauncey in court, politely defending his act to an unseen judge, explaining his comedy much in the way Lenny Bruce did during his infamous obscenity trial. The second has the fed-up comic on stage, angrily commenting on what his act has been reduced to because of government censorship as the audience starts turning against him. Lane, nevertheless, is heart-wrenching in both of these scenes.

Director Jack O'Brien's splendid production balances the budget-conscious show-biz pizzazz of the rickety burlesque house with the tender trepidation of the romantic scenes. The Nance, while heavily steeped in nostalgia for a long-gone era, turns out as the kind of fresh and original entertainment that Broadway doesn't do often enough.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Nathan Lane; Bottom: Jonny Orsini and Nathan Lane.

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