Any review of a Broadway play starring Nathan Lane necessarily starts with Nathan Lane's performance, and when Nathan Lane's performance turns out to be one of the best of his career, your review can pretty much stop there, too.
That I start elsewhere and write five hundred words before getting to Nathan Lane—well, that's just what you've come to expect from the Mythical Monkey.
Set in 1937, The Nance recreates the "naughty, raucous" world of American burlesque in its lowbrow heyday just before its abrupt and unceremonious demise. A form of variety show popular in America from the 1860s to the early 1940s, burlesque featured songs, crude humor and striptease—with the striptease distinguishing it from vaudeville, music hall and "legitimate" theater. In terms of respectability, burlesque was the lowest of the low, but it gave us Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee, and provided starts for Mae West, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, and many others.
It may be a limited world, but in it, nobody is better at making people laugh than Chauncey Miles—two-time Tony winner Nathan Lane in top form—a stage comedian who specializes in what was known as a "nance" act, an exaggeratedly camp gay character who served up ribald comedy and broad double entendres while at the same time serving as an object of the audience's derision and merriment.
That off-stage Chauncey is a closeted gay man makes him something of a crying-on-the-inside kind of clown. Indeed, Chauncey specifically likens himself to Bert Williams, the real-life African-American comedian who performed in blackface, and in a moment perhaps a bit on the nose, quotes W.C. Fields who called Williams "the funniest man I've ever seen—and the saddest man I've ever known."
The contrast between Chauncey's on-stage joy and his off-stage misery is the source of much of the play's drama.
And as he does in the theater, Chauncey thrives in this deeply-compromised environment. He lives not so much for the meeting at the beginning of the ritual or the sex at the end, as for the thirty minutes in between, a half hour of exquisite anticipation that could end in a beating, an arrest, a trip to the moon on gossamer wings or even nothing at all.
Then two developments threaten Chauncey's carefully-disordered world—monogamy, in the form of a young man (Jonny Orsini), and unemployment, in the form of government censorship.
The difficulty of the former for someone addicted to the chase, you probably intuitively grasp. The latter was the work of Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor of New York from 1937 to 1945. Although never appearing on stage, LaGuardia's impact on the story is as outsized as his impact on the city he governed. A reform-minded Republican, he supported FDR and the New Deal, cracked down on government corruption, and championed the rights of immigrants and minorities. He was also authoritarian, self-aggrandizing and priggish in the extreme, and he made it his mission to shut down the burlesque houses that were popular in New York at the time.
As his legal and professional status deteriorates, Chauncey falls back on old patterns. The old life is as risky and unsatisfying as ever, but it's also familiar, reminding us that even unhappiness can provide a measure of comfort if it's what you've know best.
That Nathan Lane can serve up so many genuine laughs while convincingly playing such a tortured (and in many ways, unlikeable) character is a testament to his real versatility as an actor. He doesn't soften Chauncey one bit, yet you feel for him. Nor does he shy away from the offensive nature of "nance" humor, yet you can't help but laugh with him.
I wonder how many reviewers have predicted that Lane's performance will earn him another Tony nomination—probably all of them—but in this case, I'd be shirking my duty if I failed to state the obvious.
Still, I'm going to be frank with you—The Nance is not for everybody, especially if the everybody in your group includes a homophobic out-of-towner and his blue-nosed great aunt. The production, directed by three-time Tony winner Jack O'Brien, features full frontal male nudity, exotic dancers in g-strings and pasties, and enough double (and single) entendres to fill out a drag queen's stage act.
Too, playwright Douglas Carter Beane tries a bit too hard to cover every base, touching not just on Chauncey's professional and personal problems, but also on union politics, right-wing hypocrisy, left-wing cowardice, New York parochialism, and a host of other issues. I mean, let's face it, when you introduce a Marxist-spouting stripper to the proceedings—and not for laughs—you're gilding the lily.
But all in all, these are minor quibbles. The point of the evening is Nathan Lane. And Nathan Lane is terrific.
The Nance is currently playing at the Lyceum Theatre in New York.