With Nathan Lane headlining a show, you may be forgiven for walking in with some unreasonably high expectations, especially post-Tonys where he was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in Leading Role in a Play. How nice then to have those expectations easily met.
The Nance is a clever, touching new play by Douglas Carter Beane, a period piece set in 1940s New York. Actually, clever doesn’t quite cover it; that implies a lot of wry smiles and knowing nods of the head among the audience. “Laugh-out-loud” comes closer, but implies that it’s essentially a comedy. How exactly does one peg a show that covers everything from romance to politics to burlesque to full-on belly laughs and, most importantly, depth of character across the cast?
We meet Lane’s Chauncey Miles at a local self-serve diner, where he briefly walks his latest prey through the ropes: young, down-and-out Ned (Jonny Orsini) has wandered by-mistake-but-really-on-purpose into one of those places where “boys like the boys,” it’s not uncommon to make surreptitious plans to meet up around the corner in half an hour, and everyone goes tense when a police siren enters earshot. How far we’ve come in 70 years. Chauncey leaves the diner for work, playing the titular nance for comic relief at a local burlesque house. He leaves work for home, picking up Ned along the way for what he assumes another in a long line of one-night stands.
The burlesque scenes are truly inspired, with a healthy dose of vaudevillian rapid-fire double-entendres (my favourite involved a later scene with Chauncey in drag as a prostitute named Hortence; cue the joke about how relaxed she looks). The stage is also a masterwork, a massive turntable with sets on each facing side. It’s used to best effect when turned on an angle, with most of the burlesque “backstage” facing the audience for dialogue between characters while a hint of the “onstage” side remains visible, with secondary performers playing to the wings. There’s a continuous energy to this show that comes through staging and performance simultaneously.
Chauncey is also a bit of a stand-in for some one of today’s political curiosities: how can you be gay and Republican at the same time? For Chauncey, the answer is easy; neither party supports gays in that era, so he may as well go for the individualist do-it-yourself-ers who support business and enterprise. His blind faith that the crackdown on his livelihood is a temporary political stunt is tragic; surely a Republican would never close down an industry that employs thousands solely on moral grounds? Ned (who has moved in with him and joined the burlesque show) and his coworkers are excited about an impending sympathy strike among all the arts performers in the city. Chauncey is dismissive of their enthusiasm, a wet blanket over their belief that together they can make change.
Which isn’t to say that he is without courage or empathy. Amid the crackdowns and police raids, he insists on playing his effeminate nance, even to the point of courting investigation and arrest. He refuses to plead guilty, thinking his status as “one of them,” a Republican, will protect him. The chemistry between Lane and Orsini is undeniable, and the show’s laughs never overshadow its inherent tragedy. Also excellent is the burlesque show’s owner, Efram (Lewis J. Stadlen), a rough and practical funny man who is politically savvy enough to be aghast at Chauncey’s decisions while wise enough not to take personal offense at them. His patter with Lane and Orsini on and off the stage-within-the-stage keeps the show moving at a good clip, never wasting a moment.
In the end, this is a show about how nothing is straightforward, faith is seldom rewarded, and people will be who they are to the end, no matter how bitter. We all know how the story proceeds (thank you Supreme Court of 2013), but The Nance takes us back to a harsher time for social justice and makes us ask: “What would I have done?”
4.5 out of 5 double entendres.