Perhaps the most unexpected thing about The Nance is that I left feeling somewhat sad, but mostly cold. It is, ultimately, a sad story of resignation and loss that Douglas Carter Beane has written about a larger-than-life character, played by the larger-than-life Nathan Lane, a combination that should have made me feel a little more. Usually, smart comedy with a dark edge hits all of my emotional buttons - Beane, in particular, is very good at that. But this important-for-our-times story lays out all of those "buttons," and pushes each one so carefully, so precisely, that it diminishes a lot of the impact. You see, in this age of marriage equality, it couldn't be more important for modern generations to see just how far we've come, and how the battle has been fought, warts and all. The Nance
Still, there is much to praise about this ambitious production. Technically, the show has the visual power generally reserved for big Broadway musicals. John Lee Beatty's revolving set conjures everything from an Automat, to a Greenwich Village walk down, to a full-scale burlesque theatre, onstage and backstage. The details of each set are meticulously rendered, managing to be bold and colorful, and yet somehow sad and past its prime. The same can be said for Ann Roth's array of period costumes and "burly-q" finery; flashy and fine and loaded with just-off sadness, while Japhy Weideman's lighting manages to convey the false hilarity of the long-lost stage genre, the danger of the secretive life in the closet, and the melancholy of the tormented man at the center of it all. Of course, in someways this is a musical - the burlesque scenes are punctuated by period-feeling numbers by Glen Kelly, orchestrated by Larry Blank, and choreographed by Joey Pizzi. And, one could certainly argue that director Jack O'Brien has carefully staged the piece much like a musical, with bombastic theatricality for the "stage" scenes, and a meticulous parallelism in the "real life" scenes. O'Brien is no stranger to that sort of dichotomy, having done similar work with Hairspray (civil rights/racism in the 60's against the backdrop of a TV dance show) and even The Full Monty (turn of this century economic desperation against the backdrop of a male strip show). But here, O'Brien (and Beane) might have been able to delve deeper into the darker themes of the show had the characters been given the opportunity to emote through interior monologues and emotional dialogues that a soaring ballad or catchy recitative would allow. Perhaps The Nance: The Musical would have allowed me the impact I so clearly wanted when the curtain call was over.
As the core company of the Irving Place Theatre, the cast is extraordinary, nailing the rhythms and authenticity of a bygone era. One can only imagine the research that went into this staging. Lewis J. Stadlen is a riot in his groan-inducing comic scenes - one bad joke after another rolls off his tongue as if he were spinning gold - and he is a grounding force backstage, representing the very cautiously accepting, but realistic man about town (today, we'd call him a "straight ally"). The three ladies of the troupe also represent certain dualities - onstage, they are the floozy, the exotic temptress and the ditsy blonde. "Backstage," they represent risky politics - a Communist, yikes! (the always amazing Cady Huffman), the place in society for "ethnic" performers (the fine, but underused Andrea Burns), and the "little woman has her place" (the delightful Jenni Barber). Together, they deliver the goods, and then some, as burlesque performers, the funny backbone of act one, and the emotional support system of act two.
The center of the piece, the title character, "The Nance" aka Chauncey Miles, is played with remarkable restraint by the generally magnificent Nathan Lane. It is much to his credit that, even at the height of the burlesque zaniness, he doesn't give in to the temptation to go overboard. The result is a delicious mix of high comedy, low brow humor, and a distinct, palpable undercurrent of sadness. Even onstage, Chauncey can't completely hide the results of feeling degraded by having to make a caricature of himself in public. Offstage, in act one at least, Lane imbues Chauncey with a world-weariness and a been-there-done-that false bravado. The combination allows us to see a much less fey, stronger man that is certainly attractive to those unafraid to act upon their truest sexual feelings. As the play goes on, we see Lane navigate some pretty tricky waters - from role model, to unwitting lover, to a man
But, if there is a real silver lining here, it is in the career-defining Broadway debut of Jonny Orsini, who will, mark my words, become a huge star. As young gay man Ned, Orsini takes on what might be the most challenging role in the play. His story arc calls upon the actor to come to final grips with the lifestyle he thought he was choosing, but is really one that is naturally who he is - something somewhat more than a simple coming out story. He also falls head over heels for the man who saves him from a life on the streets, but seeing the relationship as completely natural at a time when such things were called "deviant." Add to it that Ned joins the act - awkwardly and hilariously at first and ultimately with skill. Interestingly, it is in the problematic second act that Orsini really shines. As things spiral out of control, and Ned becomes the victim of Chauncey's cruelty, he finally has the courage to confront the man he loves. The result is a tense, emotionally satisfying scene, played by a Broadway master and a Broadway debutante. Had the rest of the play from that moment had been equally riveting, their scene would be the talk of the town. Even still, add my voice to the chorus of disbelief that Mr. Orsini was denied a Tony nomination. Talk about "egregiously overlooked." No worries. I am certain that we will hear from this fantastic talent again, sooner rather than later.
(Photos by Joan Marcus)