Douglas Carter Beane's fascinating, moving, if overlong play with music, THE NANCE, gives us a confrontation between two historic views of what it means to be homosexual. It is the late 1930s and Chauncey Miles is very much a product of his repressive times. The word "gay" is probably not yet part of his argot, though he knows the necessary codes for picking up "trade" (straight men willing to be serviced out of horniness or financial need) in the usual cruising places. Of course the late night restaurants, bars and parks where men meet for sex are often raided, but Chauncey knows this is part of the excitement of being a homosexual in New York City -- the man you hook up with may rob you, beat you or arrest you. Ironically, Chauncey is an ardent Republican, vehemently against all Franklin Roosevelt's social programs and virulently against the labor movement and communists. It doesn't matter that Fiorello LaGuardia, a Republican, is enforcing moral codes that endanger Chauncey and actually put him out of a job; for Chauncey is a burlesque comic and LaGuardia wants to ban burlesque from New York City before tourists pour in for the 1939 Worlds Fair. Chauncey thinks LaGuardia's repressive police actions are merely pre-election posturing and that nothing will change. He's very wrong. Chauncey is famous for playing the Nance, the burlesque pansy who is a caricature of effeminacy and homosexuality (totally linked at the time). Most comics who played the Nance were at least ostensibly straight, but Chauncey is a homosexual making his living by caricaturing homosexuals. He does it well enough to bring in a large audience. Unfortunately, since word is out that Chauncey is gay offstage as well as on, many in the audience are gay men who have sex with "trade" in the balcony during the performance, an activity the guardians of morality are bound to notice.
At the opening of THE NANCE, it is late at night and Chauncey is sitting in the Greenwich Village Automat, a known cruising site, giving out the discreet signs that he is shopping for sex. Enter Ned, a handsome, destitute young man from Buffalo. The rest of the play is in great part the story of Ned and Chauncey's relationship. Ned has never been indoctrinated into the signs, mannerisms and self-loathing of urban gay culture. He left his wife because he couldn't love her and has come to the city to find a loving relationship. In fact, Ned seems to be a twenty-first century homosexual stuck in the wrong time. Chauncey first sees "straight looking and acting" Ned as "trade" and is shocked to discover that Ned is attracted to men. He is more shocked to discover that Ned wants a real relationship with him. Ultimately, Chauncey cannot be anything but a product of his time. He tells Ned at their parting: "This is not for me. It is not what I should be having," a way of saying, men like him don't deserve a real marriage with another man. As Chauncey's burlesque career goes on the skids, Ned moves into "legitimate theatre", the chorus of a Cole Porter musical.
Scenes of the relationship between Chauncey and Ned and the end of burlesque in New York alternate with burlesque skits that mirror the scenes that precede them. Beane has done his research -- many of these skits are classic burlesque sketches.
Director Jack O'Brien, a master at fast-moving entertainment -- the George Abbott of our day -- has assembled a great cast that does justice to the burlesque material (though my full audience only found the sketches mildly amusing) and the warmth and sadness of the main narrative. The show is a vehicle for Nathan Lane and he gets to show his full range, from pansy schtick to a comic drag act to touching dramatic scenes. I have never seen Lane show so much range as an actor. His burlesque cohorts, particularly veteran comic actors Lewis J. Stadlen and Cady Huffman, are terrific both as their onstage and offstage personae. In the midst of all the camp and schtick, Jonny Orsini is perfect as the sweet, totally non-camp young man who loves Chauncey. Eventually Orsini's Ned also gets caught up in the burlesque acts, and he is as funny as the veteran performers.
OK, we've got a show about a burlesque comic. We've got performers who have won awards for their work in musicals. We've even got a small band -- sounding better than notoriously bad burlesque bands sounded. I kept thinking that THE NANCE is a play that cries out to be a real musical. Yes, I know we have a musical partly about burlesque that is one of the greatest musicals of all time -- GYPSY. Nonetheless, all the key moments in this show would have been more effective if they had been sung. We've also got a show that's too long. The farewell scene, in the Automat like the first scene, would have rounded out the show but, we've got another ten minutes or so after that to give Nathan Lane a few more big scenes. That may change -- the show is still in previews. The only big laughs the show got were jokes with contemporary resonance. The night's biggest laugh came in the midst of a heated political discussion, when one of the characters says, "Do you really think people will still be arguing about Social Security eighty years from now?"
THE NANCE is only running for twelve weeks and, despite its flaws, I highly recommend it. It's an ambitious play that gives us a glimpse into the sad history of gay men. Every young gay person should see it to see how far we have come. Chauncey isn't an aberration. All of us older gay men knew Chaunceys -- may even have been Chaunceys at some point in our lives. It's worth seeing just to see Nathan Lane's bravura performance, supported by an excellent cast.
THE NANCE. Lincoln Center Theatre at the Lyceum Theatre. March 29, 2013.