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A CurtainUp Review
The Nance
A nance, according to Webster's Dictionary, is "an effeminate or homosexual man." In the world of 1930's burlesque, a nance was a wildly popular character, a stereotypically camp homosexual man, usually played by a straight performer. — From the program notes.
The Nance
Nathan Lane
In Douglas Carter Beane's new play with music, Nathan Lane plays the titular role. It proves to be quite a teaming for one of America's most talented actors in a memorable role (another peak in a history of peaks) in a funnily sad play.

The Nance is for those who have steadfastly waited for the talented Beane to write a really provocative, dramatically rich and fulfilling play, following such laudable teasers as As Bees in Honey Drown and The Little Dog Laughed. Beane is in top form. His instinct for wit delivered with a sting is matched in this instance by an unconventional story based on a legacy of injustice that is as emotionally affecting as it is rigorously entertaining.

For those who think they know what to expect from Lane, he gives the kind of outstanding performance that challenges for supremacy the iconic award-winning roles he played in The Producers, Guys and Dolls and Love! Valour! Compassion!. As the Nance, Lane allows us to see into the heart-breaking core of a disconsolate man who is compelled to endure the slings and arrows of an unforgiving society, even as he remains a mere comical adjunct to the more provocatively demonstrative undulations of others in his profession.

The theater in New York City in 1937, like the rest of the country, may have been in a state of recovery from the economic ravages of the Great Depression, but burlesque was definitely on the endangered list. Often commonly referred to in print as "burlesk houses," such venues as the Irving Place Theater where much of the play takes place, were being given severe fines and the threat of being closed down by Mayor LaGuardia's newly enforced morality. This morality also extended to a crackdown on openly homosexual activity, even the potential for it.

It's a kind of double indemnity for Chauncey Miles (Lane) who may be a popular "nancy" headliner in the innocently bawdy skits at the Irving Place Theatre, but is also a not-so-innocent homosexual in real life. His after work digression to seek out sexual encounters with men serve as our introduction to a poignantly reckless character. One such encounter, however, proves that love may be found in the most unlikely place and provides the basis for making this a very moving play.

As splendidly directed by Jack O'Brien, The Nance begins at an automat which was evidently a popular cruising spot at the time and where Chauncey surreptitiously picks up Ned (Jonny Orsini), a tall, good-looking, if insupportably naive, country bumpkin down on his luck.

In an untypical gesture to feed his curiosity and also fuel his attraction to this rather personable young man newly arrived in the city, Chauncey brings him home to his apartment where Ned takes a bath (the obligatory male nude scene). Having been invited to spend the night, Ned discloses his preference for men and also the failure of his marriage before he knew the score. In his Broadway debut, Orsini does more than hold his own against a master scene stealer and exists as an extraordinary character.

Ned's genuine and generous display of affection and sincerity is hard for Chauncey to accept and is the heartbreaking core of the play. Chauncey may be a cornucopia of flippant and funny remarks, such as alluding to the decor in his cluttered-with-Orientalia apartment as "Anna Mae Wong's wet dream," yet his cautious acceptance of Ned as a live-in lover is allowed to blossom for a while.

The relationship becomes complicated when Ned is given a job of straight man at the theater. Even with no stage experience, Ned is welcomed to the generally harmonious company, except tby understandably worry-wart top banana Efram (a terrific performance by Lewis J. Stadlen) whose fears that Chauncey's nancy act will bring in the vice squad. Playing queer in drag is evidently acceptable.

Although it is pretty obvious, the question is whether we can or cannot see the schism that could easily appear in the relationship. Chauncey can't stop himself from cruising, and Ned wants the conflicted, actually self-hating, Chauncey to remain faithful. Interspersed are the hoary skits (with original songs by Glen Kelly) and silly bump and grind routines performed by the house strippers, Joan (Jenni Barber), Carmen (Andrea Burns) and a wonderfully feisty Cady Huffman (Sylvie)­ the latter his "Bolshevik sister" and dedicated social activist. This allows for some enlivening political posturing to be imposed on the plot.

Chauncey makes no bones about his hatred for President Roosevelt and being a staunch Republican. This is a side of him that is most provocative and puzzling. He, like so many self-deluding citizens of our nation's minorities who vote against their own best interests, chooses to hide his feelings of guilt behind conservative values. Of course, that allows Sylvie to remark, "Being a homosexual Republican is like being a black member of the Klu-Klux-Klan."

There is no hiding for any of these characters within the marvelous revolving sets designed by that genius John Lee Beatty to transfer us fluidly from the automat, to back stage of the theater, to Chauncey's apartment faster than it takes for the balloons to burst over a stripper's boobs. This is a play about the end of an era, but also the beginning of what will become a long and continuing struggle for "the used and discarded" in our society to assert and attain their rightful place in our world.

The Nance by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed by Jack O'Brien

Cast: Nathan Lane (Chauncey), Jonny Orsini (Ned), Lewis J. Stadlen (Efram), Cady Huffman (Sylvie), Jenni Barber (Joan), Andrea Burns (Carmen), Mylinda Hull (Rose, the Wardrobe Mistress), Geoggrey Allen Murphy (Charlie, a Stagehand).
Sets: John Lee Beatty
Costumes: Ann Roth
Lighting: Japhy Weidman
Sound: Leon Rothenberg
Original Music: Glen Kelly
Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes including intermission
Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th Street
Tickets: $137.00 - $37.00
Performances: Tuesday evenings at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8pm, with matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm.
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 04/13/13
From 03/21/13 Opened 04/15/13 Ends 08/11/13 /td>
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