Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 15, 2013
The Nance a new play by Douglas Carter Beane. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Choreography by Joey Pizzi. Sets by John Lee Beatty. Costumes by Ann Roth. Lighting by Japhy Weideman. Sound by Leon Rothenberg. Original music by Glen Kelly. Orchestrations by Larry Blank. Cast in alphabetical order: Jenni Barber, Andréa Burns, Cady Huffman, Mylinda Hull, Nathan Lane, Goeffrey Allen Murphy, Jonny Orsini, Lewis J. Stadlen.
So natural a match are they, it's impossible to believe — yet apparently true — that they haven't worked together on a major play before. Beane, the ultra-dry wit responsible for satires like The Little Dog Laughed and Xanadu (and, to a lesser extent, this season's new adaptation of Cinderella), is a master of zippy, bon mot–infused wordplay and trenchant insights about that business called show. And Lane, big of spirit and buoyant of manner, delivers even the broadest of jokes with focus befitting an O'Neill tragedy, but in an over-the-shoulder way that's made him irreplaceable in numerous plays by the likes of Terrence McNally and Jon Robin Baitz and, to especial acclaim, the stage version of The Producers.
So when, in the opening scene of The Nance, Lane reduces the entire theater to stitches just by the way he moves a hat between a table and a chair in a Horn & Hardart Automat, all is quite clearly right with the world. And when he mugs and grimaces through the forest of false emotions his character, Chauncey Miles, owns as if through the Divine Right of Kings, only to later realize that the same man controls the actual feelings he's spent his life mocking, his journey is completely believable and a thoroughly sobering deconstruction of the masks we all wear just to make a difficult existence bearable.
That there are this many levels at play here is rather more of a surprise, considering the indelibly off-kilter nature of the theater climate Beane and his director, Jack O'Brien, have brought to life for Chauncey to inhabit. He's an out-and-proud conservative Republican in Roosevelt-ravaged 1937 — and he happens to be gay. He's also the title character, the flouncy, flashy, and oh-so-funny star at the Irving Place Theater burlesque who can turn anything into a flamingly swishy double entendre. ("I brought these here music books," comes the setup; "I'm usually more comfortable with a Hymn" runs Chauncey's grand-slam reply.)
Beane presents Chauncey's professional pursuits as, at first, interludes in the examination of who he is as a person. Though they initially seem disconnected, reality and fantasy soon fuse, and it quickly becomes clear that Chauncey is one person both onstage and off — and anyone who doesn't accept or understand that will be left behind.
The prime candidate for the first victim is the man Chauncey meets at that Automat one gloom Thursday night. His name is Ned (Jonny Orsini), a good-looking, ostensibly (theoretically?) straight boy who's lost his way (and his wallet, or so he claims) after arriving from Niagara Falls. In other words, just Chauncey's type: clueless and anonymous, no strings attached. It's not long before the two of them are hitting it off then hitting the sheets, and soon after Chauncey is inviting Ned to stay only until he can find a job and a place of his own in the city.
So delicious are the setups and payoffs Beane has devised that to reveal them would be at least as deservedly criminal as any of Chauncey's actions. A life-or-death courtroom scene rendered as a biting comedy act is perhaps the tastiest conflation of guffaws and government, but Beane's contrasting the crumbling city outside with Chauncey's internal disintegration is gripping throughout. Seeing Chauncey trying to maintain his ideals and his livelihood, while both are being threatened from every direction, drives home as little else in recent memory has the dangers that can arise when art and politics clash.
Even so, The Nance still becomes a big-ol' love fest, with Chauncey getting particularly hot and heavy with Ned, but hardly paying less attention to Chauncey's (literal) Communist backstage best friend, Sylvie (Cady Huffman), his (literal and figurative) onstage-and-off straight-man friend Efram (a corned-beef-on-rye ideal Lewis J. Stadlen), and, of course, the theater itself. All these relationships are thoughtfully articulated and through the bruising honesty of their construction intelligently reinforce Chauncey's status as a misfit even within the circles where he should feel most comfortable.
Beyond that, there's also the meta mashing of Beane giving Lane so many juicy opportunities to bring down the house, in Irving Place sketches set in hotels, mad scientist laboratories, on street corners, and more, of which Lane makes the most of every millisecond; of Glen Kelly's flawless period tunes (orchestrated with unapologetic bounce by Larry Blank and peppily choreographed by Joey Pizzi) accompanying Beane's incisively hilarious lyrics, with "Hi Simply Hi" the funniest and eventually the most tragic; impeccable design, comprising John Lee Beatty's delightfully dilapidated rotating set, Ann Roth's cheeky costumes, and Japhy Weideman's fine lights; and O'Brien's unimpeachable staging, which expertly blends the play's light and dark qualities while ensuring everything remains truthful.
If we must get nitpicky, the second act veers too sharply toward an uncomfortable and unearned sentimentality as it goes along. And though all the subsidiary characters, who also include two other Irving Place dancers (Jenni Barber and Andréa Burns) are superbly played, they rarely feel like much more than distractions from the two romances that matter most: between Chauncey and Ned and, of course, between Chauncey and himself.
The latter is the most convincing of all, because both Beane and Lane have carved out Chauncey as the ultimate individual, ready to buck trends and friends to the exclusion — if not the destruction — of all else. Watching what he transforms into as a result of his choices, within both his intimate sphere and the greater society outside it, is neither easy nor always pleasant. It is, however, about as good as Broadway gets this season, a piercing reminder of how transformative the theatre and personal agency, when properly applied, can be.