“Everybody’s looking for love” in The Nance, Douglas Carter Beane’s moving new play in performances at the Lyceum Theater. This lyric, crooned onstage in a vaudeville performance, applies to more than simply romantic love. In The Nance, the titular character is seeking love from society, the audience and – this is the most difficult part – himself.
Chauncey Miles, played to pitch-perfect humor and drama by Nathan Lane, is a conundrum in 1930s New York. He plays a nance, a flamboyant homosexual character/caricature in a vaudeville show at the Irving Place Theater, and he is gay in his offstage life as well. As he explains, “It’s like a negro doing blackface.” The Nance, directed by Jack O’Brien, follows Chauncey as both his professional and personal life suffer in the twilight of burlesque while the LaGuardia administration cracks down on homosexuality by raiding theaters and arresting men for “degenerate and disorderly conduct.”
We first meet Chauncey when he is dining in an automat known to be friend to homosexuals. It is there where he meets the fresh-faced Ned (an excellent Jonny Orsini) and invites him home. What Chauncey thought to be an anonymous one-night stand Ned views as something more and the two embark on an actual relationship, something seemingly new to Chauncey. Ned soon begins performing at the Irving Place Theater, alongside Chauncey’s co-stars Efram (an excellent, witty Lewis J. Stadlen) and a trio of strippers (Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber and Andréa Burns), who perform Joey Pizzi’s period-specific choreography. The Nance, much like the musical Cabaret, alternates between real-life scenes and onstage performances that reflect or comment on the Chauncey’s actual life.
As both begin to rapidly deteriorate, The Nance takes a much darker turn, especially as Chauncey, a Republican, experiences rapid disillusionment with this political party. When the policeman raid the theater mid-performance, Chauncey chooses to remain onstage and be arrested, and in the courtroom, attempts to reason with the judge. He fails and, as he says forlornly to his friends later, he thought they would listen to him because he was one of them. This act of bravado, and the resulting despair, are beautifully portrayed by Lane, whom Beane had in mind for Chauncey while writing the play.
Lane gives Chauncey both the bravery and naivete he needs, honoring both the ego of an actor and the fear and loneliness that reside within that ego. As Chauncey watches the world he knew fall apart around him and indulges in extremely self-destructive behavior, Lane portrays both the despair and the anger that drive his actions. As his desperation and self-contempt begin to appear in his acts onstage, the result is simply heartbreaking. Chauncey is viewed as a hero by his friends but he loathes the compliment, preferring instead to suffer in isolation.
Lane is joined by an excellent supporting cast, all of whom fully inhabit their characters. Orsini gives a full-hearted, carefully textured performance as Ned, a man who can be honest with himself and his Chauncey, even when Chauncey cannot. Especially impressive is Huffman, playing a salty-tongued Communist who recognizes Chauncey’s spiraling self-destructive behavior.
Much like burlesque scenes in The Nance, beautifully rendered with sets by John Lee Beaty, lighting by Japhy Weideman and costumes by Ann Roth, reflected on Chauncey’s real life, the play The Nance reflects much on ours. As the Defense of Marriage Act is debated in the Supreme Court, the definition of equality is pondered in American culture. The fanatacism of the LaGuardia administration to, as Chauncey put it, “pander to the Jesus crowd” by shutting down burlesque shows and arresting homosexuals in order to gain re-election brought to mind the desperate attempts to restrict reproductive rights and eliminate abortion during the most recent election period.
Part of Chauncey’s onstage act involved someone asking him, “Are you a nance?” and him proudly responding with comedic exaggerated defensiveness, “Yes. And that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a bad person!” As the play progressed, this statement sounded increasingly desperate. It is a shame that it still needs to be said almost 100 years later.