Nathan Lane is at his tragicomic best in The Nance, a curious showbiz homage?slash?historical Broadway drama from the ambidextrous playwright Douglas Carter Beane. (He also updated the script this season for Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella.) As over-the-top gay burlesque performer Chauncey Miles, Lane gets to be campier than…well, think of the campiest thing you’ve ever seen. Then double it.
Chauncey plays ‘the pansy” — a.k.a. ”the Nance” — who gets the laughs between striptease performances. And he actually is a pansy, ”which is kind of like a Negro doing black face,” Chauncey tells handsome, butch, fresh-from-Buffalo Ned (Jonny Orsini) in a Greenwich Village automat circa 1937. He is also a Republican: ”Say something nice about Roosevelt and prepare to have your eyes scratched out.” Meanwhile, who knew the automat was such a hot gay pickup spot? The Nance captures a fascinating slice of bygone New York City life.
The play ping-pongs between Chauncey’s two worlds: the Irving Place Theatre, where he basks in the glow (if not the glory) of the footlights; and off stage, where he goes from trick to trick, under cover of night, hiding behind a veil of anonymity. Inevitably, both worlds come crashing down: The city’s Republican cronies are itching to shut down the Irving Place at the first whiff of indecency, and Ned turns out to be more than just a pretty face and buff body. (Proof of the latter is exhibited in the play’s very revealing second scene.)
Beane — along with director Jack O’Brien, who knows a thing or two about showbiz razzle-dazzle (see: Hairspray) — has come up with a few genuinely fresh burlesque bits (no easy feat!), accompanied by Glen Kelly’s too-darn-catchy tunes. And they’ve assembled a crack comic team to play the Irving Place performers: Cady Huffman (a Tony winner for her when-you-got-it-flaunt-it turn in The Producers), Jenni Barber, and Andréa Burns (In the Heights) as a ragtag trio of strippers — think Gypsy’s Mazeppa, Electra, and Tessie Tura. In addition, the priceless Lewis J. Stadlen portrays Efram, Chauncey’s usual scene partner. Stadlen and Lane have built up quite the easy-breezy comic rapport over the years in shows such as Laughter on the 23rd Floor, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Mizlansky/Zilinsky or ”Schmucks”, and The Man Who Came to Dinner. If they got an act together, they could take it on the road.
John Lee Beatty’s set — a Lazy Susan-style nook-and-cranny-filled marvel — spins between the theater, backstage, and Chauncey’s apartment with wondrous ease. If only the story moved back and forth that smoothly. There’s an awful lot of talk devoted to New York City politics and the (unseen) conservative commissioner of licensing Paul Moss; and there’s a lot of heavy relationship discussion between Ned and Chauncy. Like Chauncy’s two worlds, Beane’s eventually crumble as well. B
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-447-7400)