The Nance: Nathan Lane in the Performance of a Lifetime.
The Nance is a heavenly vehicle for comedic singer/ dramatic actor Nathan Lane, who plays 1930s vaudeville performer Chauncey Miles in the Lincoln Center production now at the Lyceum Theatre on 45th Street. Supported by an exceptional ensemble – Jonny Orsini (Ned), Lewis J. Stadlen (Efram), Cady Huffman (Sylvie), Jenni Barber (Joan), and Andrea Burns (Carmen) – Lane’s performance is a powerhouse, expressing a variegated population of emotions that stretch the audience along a rubber band from zany belly-laughs to poignant tears as we identify with this gay burlesque performer who forces himself to walk a tightrope of contradictory impulses toward love and hate, cynicism and hope, self-acceptance and self-loathing, empowerment and weakness.
Douglas Carter Beane, it has been reported, wrote the play with Nathan Lane in mind. Who better to portray a caricatured “Nance,” the stereotypical, effeminate “pansy” (usually in vaudeville played by a straight man) of burlesque, who spurs on laughs with double entendres and quippy one-liners between female strip acts, cooling down the steam stoked by bare women who must change for their next peeling reveal. Who better than a “Nance” to encourage the audience males about their virility as they ogle the strippers’ nudity, enjoy the sexual thrill of it and laugh at the “bloke” who is more interested in watching them than the tasseled nipples of the lightly clad ladies. Who better than Nathan Lane to play a “Nance”? Didn’t this amazing chameleon-like showman catapult us into a laugh track with his broad histrionics and heart-opening portrayal of lovable Albert Goldman in the Mike Nichols film The Birdcage (1996)? Beane has spun circles around this irony and delivered an amazing play and the director, Jack O’Brien, with Glen Kelly (Original Music), Joey Pizzi (Choreography), John Lee Beatty (Sets), and Ann Roth (Costumes) to name a few, have brought together a magnificent conceptualization with a tragi-comical punch line as the dominoes of irony tumble on each other at the play’s symbolic conclusion.
The theme and tensions of duality between what is real and what is masked pretense thread throughout the entire production performed with aptly giltless sets including a revolving platform upon which Chauncey unfolds the roiling aspects of his existence traveling between his fun, madcap, self-deprecatory “fag” antics onstage (that are poignant and real) and offstage as the straight, intellectual poseur, a frame to enclose his surreptitious gay affairs, moments enacted in an automat, staging ground for covert gay trysts where one can secretly troll for sex partners who are then brought back to the privacy of Chauncey’s apartment.
His duality manifests when we watch Chauncey’s “poseur” persona lure young, beautiful, down-on-his-luck Ned, who Chauncey, with carefully nuanced signals and occult gay innuendo and subterfuge (part of the act) brings to his apartment. Despite Chauncey’s reluctance (his poseur self) and desire to maintain the orderly division between what is real and what is acting, he violates his best intentions allowing Ned to stay. He is falling in love. The tearing of the curtain between reality and illusion between life and art has begun in their morning after scene when Lane brilliantly begins the morph from the initially strained, cynically laced, intellectually conservative Republican straight Chauncey into the increasingly truthful, loving, caring Chauncey, a harmless, humorous, gifted “Nance” (as seen by the culture, but who the audience sees as the eternally, mystical, tragic-comic clown/fool).
Beane’s dual threads are fraught with complexity and can easily be underestimated because of the subtle interplay between Chauncey’s burlesque pansy act and Chauncey’s real life straight poseur which he acts out as a conservative Republican who glorifies NYC Mayor La Guardia. The shifts between onstage reality and offstage acting are reminiscent of Cabaret, but here function as an amazing reversal of the Candor and Ebb musical; the Nance act is the real thing, the real life is the act, until a certain character, Ned, shows up. The truth which Ned forces Chauncey to confront is his faux existence and after Chauncey falls hard for Ned, he no longer wants to be two different people.
Beane reveals the evolution of Chauncey and Lane is spot on as he unhappily struggles to be the poseur, a closeted gay man, who has fallen in love with married Ned, a discovering gay, as both are forced to live the lies of straights while masking their feelings, identities, beings. Lane’s Chauncey helplessly entangles himself in his true love for Ned. He becomes enraged and dislocated. Not only has he shredded the curtain between his real self and the act which ensured his former easy existence and world view, he no longer wants to repair the curtain sustaining the two person duality and its emotionally disastrous attendant issues. He enjoys the singularity of love and its feeling truths and his new, free statehood.
With this freedom has come empowerment. He becomes upfront about despising hypocrites like prudish Paul Moss (a failed theatrical, lifelong bachelor and “dandy.”) Mayor La Guardia’s watchdog mandated to curtail stage indecency, closing down perverse “Nance” acts. Moss and the La Guardia administration have labeled as perverted the love that healed the schism in Chauncey’s soul, a schism that had made him emotionally unfeeling and alien. Though Ned’s uncomplicated, authentic, self nurtured Chauncey’s individuality into a healthier state, Chauncey’s new identity/truth explodes with rage and vision. Like an artist out of his time, he is doomed for it. Of course, the irony of the play’s action is that the more Ned and Chauncey love, come alive and receive authenticity from each other, the more their straight “act” falls away. The new fusion jeopardizes their lives and both must be sacrificed on an alter of oppression.
All semblance of the curtain separating his duality is completely destroyed by Chauncey when, during his act onstage, Moss shows up and Chauncey lathered in fury shouts out at the audience and Moss With a singular will and determination he provokes his own arrest and in-jail brutality. We later discover the rumors of his love relationship with Ned have suggested he is a real pansy, an illegality the La Guardia administration in NYC will not tolerate if it is exposed.
The second act opens with Chauncey alone in front of the Lyceum theatre stage curtain. He is in court and we hear the loud gavel as if banging down on his head; the judge is silent and Chauncey responds as if the judge’s questions were audible to us, though they are not. In seething, bile-filled humor he puts on his (No one is there…in a way the scene represents Chauncey’s battle struggling between his duality: the judge/Republican poseur and the Nance) poseur straight act. He justifies the harmlessness of double entendres in the pansy act which make folks laugh. Though he makes it out of court, Chauncey has lost hold of his ordered former existence where he could easily move himself in and out of offstage illusion and onstage reality. During the court scene and after, we see he is at the end of his rope, but not the end of his very raw emotional state which has blossomed because of his relationship with Ned. Chauncey must survive: he has “to get his act together” and leave show business or put the curtain down between his two personas and live his former life of duality. Will he be able to after having been healed to oneness in the freedom of love?
After jail, Chauncey returns to his friends, muddled. Theatrical protests are forming to “save the Nance acts.” Chauncey has refused to protest, pooh-poohing any hope of success with his conservative poseur sardonic self and we are duped into believing him as the others crowd around the radio to hear the results, never once considering he is back in his straight “act” for a good reason. He has been bullied there. He can’t protest; he has been on the front lines in jail and has seen the face of discriminatory brutality. Repression and abuse have stymied him. When the protest fails, his “I told you sos” ring clear. Banned, his stage act is over; his offstage act must go on. But how can it if Ned is around?
Through oppressive cultural circumstances, Chauncey converts his reality of love to a lie; call it his material survival and soul death. Onstage, his act which had once been more real than his offstage life has taken a turn into hyperbole when he is forced to play a role that ridicules both sexes. Not only has the Nance gone undercover, he has engaged the double-edged ridicule of men and women (a further perversion wrought by an oppressive government). This ridicule of both sexes is heightened in his portrayal of drag queen Hortense. A Nance in drag, he is neither convincing, good-looking or adorable as he once was, though his humor is in tact. Nevertheless, the irony is impeccable. In drag as Hortense, Chauncey has become freakish, unfeminine, weak and unlovable. He is barely capable of carrying through with his act because it is so far removed from himself. In ridiculing the ridiculed and oppressed (women) he receives no empowerment, only the inherent humorous degradation of taking on the xx chromosome. As the Nance, he was free to be himself onstage and in a role that both empowered and uplifted him to get to the next day, the next tryst, the next stage performance.
We understand how the Hortense act stifles Chauncey’s real impulses and provides no outlet for his true self (as the Nance) when, during his Hortense “act” reality intrudes. Chauncey breaks down and sobs. He has lost himself, Ned, freedom and love. But the oppressive show must go on. He recoups after a long pause and with a one-liner gets a belly laugh. The audience gets what they came for, an hour to forget their troubles. And this tragic fool on the stage? He gets to see the curtain going down on a most wondrous part of his life and his ability to be real anywhere.
The playwright has so aptly woven the notes of Chauncey’s character with perfect writing and Lane hits every single one of them with a sledgehammer, nailing down Chauncey’s spiritual/soulish coffin. By the end, as Chauncey packs up his parapherenalia to return home, there is a huge bang-crash. A fixture drops nearly on his head, barely missing him. He looks off staring into the future. When I first saw the production, I missed an important detail that I caught the second time I saw it when I was sitting in the front row: the black shadow of a rope tied in a noose, swinging high from the backstage rafters.
The symbolism is furtive with multiple meanings foreshadowed. Certainly, the noose shadow suggests the La Guardia administration’s unforgiving and brutal noose tightening toward homosexuals, a cultural attitude which only loosened after the 1990s and hard won battles to break down injustices against gays. In parts of the country, the noose is still hanging; certainly the online bullying of gay youngsters has caused one too many to take their own lives. Related to Chauncey (Chancey) it is moot whether he will be able to maintain the curtain separating his dual selves. Will he be able to forgive himself, knowing all he has been forced to give up and has allowed himself to give up, the stereotype of a weak willed woman? Will his bitterness and self-hatred get the best of him one dark night when he decides it is better not to live at all than to live a life of lies onstage and off with no outlet for his soul’s fulfillment?
It’s all there and more in Lane’s and cast’s performances, in the direction and spectacle, in Beane’s writing, and it’s marvelous to behold. If you love Lane don’t miss this. Treat yourself to this work of art which won three Tony Awards and the performance of a lifetime by Nathan Lane who won the Outer Circle Critics Award and the Drama League Award.
The Nance runs through August 11, 2013 in an extended performance.
Production photo credits by Jean Marcus.