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Jonny Orsini The Nance
by Wayman Wong

Jonny Orsini
Here's Jonny ... Orsini! He's making his bright Broadway debut in The Nance in very Tony company. He's in the new play by Tony-nominated Douglas Carter Beane, directed by Tony-winning director Jack O'Brien and starring two-time Tony winner Nathan Lane.

Set in 1937, The Nance is the hilarious and heartbreaking story of Chauncey Miles (Lane), a gay burlesque comic who plays a swishy, dishy stereotype. He picks up the sweet and naive Ned (Orsini) in an automat, where "the boys meet the boys." They fall in love, and Ned literally gets in on the act when he joins Chauncey's troupe as a straight man for their sketches. In his first foray onstage, Ned is frozen with fear, and it's a riot. But just as The Nance can get you crying with laughter, it can move you to tears. For his part, Orsini shows how a lovable lug who's down at the heels becomes a brave young man who stands on his own two feet.

Of his co-star, Lane raves, "Jonny is an exceptionally talented young actor, with a huge future ahead of him. From the moment he walked in the room to audition, we all knew he was special, and had tremendous access to his emotions. Ned was certainly the most crucial and difficult role to cast, and it was our good fortune to find Jonny. We are such a team. I have to say that I couldn't do what I have to do in the play without him. The fact that he's also a sweetheart and a joy to work with was the icing on the cake."

Though the 5-foot-10-½, boyish-looking actor grew up as a "shy kid" in Cheshire, Connecticut, Orsini, 27, is now a natural in the spotlight. The Outer Critics Circle nominated him as Outstanding Featured Actor in The Nance, and the Theatre World Awards will give him the Dorothy Loudon Award for Excellence in the Theater on June 3 at the Music Box Theatre.

"I'm really grateful," says Orsini. "(Casting director) Daniel Swee at Lincoln Center jokes that since I already know how to do impressions of Helen Hayes and Tallulah Bankhead (in The Nance), I'll need to learn to do Dorothy Loudon next."

By the way, this isn't Orsini's first Beane play. In 2008, he co-starred with Chad Allen in The Little Dog Laughed at TheatreWorks in Hartford, Connecticut. There, he stepped in and played Alex, the gay hustler, after Jeremy Jordan was stricken with appendicitis.

Jonny Orsini and Nathan Lane
Photo by Joan Marcus
I chatted with Orsini about clowning around with Nathan, nudity and killer piranha.

Wayman Wong: Congratulations, Jonny. So how would you describe Ned?

Jonny Orsini: Ned is a wide-open heart who's not ashamed to love. Doesn't matter if it's a man or a woman. He has a lot of love to offer. He left his wife in Buffalo to come to New York because he couldn't continue to live a lie. He wanted to explore and grow.

WW:  When Ned first meets Chauncey at the Automat, why is he drawn to him?

JO:  A whole bunch of things. Chauncey's funny, and one of the most important things in a relationship is humor. Also, he's confident and charismatic. Ned learns a great deal from him; Chauncey's the key to opening the door to Ned's new life.

WW:  Nathan told the New York Times that The Nance is the first "real romance" he's ever done onstage and that it was a "challenge" dealing with the intimacy and physicality of a guy onstage. What was that like for you?

JO:  It wasn't difficult to adjust because Nathan is very easy to fall in love with. He's a genuinely, sweet and supportive guy.

WW:  Ned stays over at Chauncey's place and takes his first bath in awhile. Was it difficult to step out of that tub naked?

JO:  Same thing. When I was little, I was shy. But when I was first onstage, I didn't even think about people looking at me. In The Nance, that moment isn't overtly sexualized. And Doug writes great laugh lines. (As Chauncey), Nathan says, "I don't know why I invited you here in the first place." I stand up from the bathtub, and Nathan says, "And suddenly it all comes floating back to me."

WW:  What's it like working with Nathan?

JO:  He's a legend, but he treats me and the whole cast as equals. He sees The Nance las an ensemble piece, and that starts with our director, Jack O'Brien. He's created a true company. Nathan's very fun to play off of. He cracks me up every day and we keep each other on his toes. And if I ever have any questions, Nathan is always there because he's had all this amazing experience.

WW:  Had you ever seen Nathan's work before The Nance?

JO:  Maybe I was 16 or 17, but I remembered seeing him in the movie The Birdcage. And it wasn't just because he's funny in that. As a straight kid who grew up playing sports in a small town in Connecticut, I wasn't ever exposed to gay culture. And then that movie exploded. It was amazing. And he and everyone in it was so entertaining. It's always been one of my all-time favorites.

WW:  What do you love most about playing Ned?

JO:  That he's not interested in covering his heart or protecting his ego. He just loves. Not that it just rolls right off of him, but he's willing to take it all. What's so great about playing characters like that is you can create the channel to help bring them into your life. It's almost like meditating. I will always want to carry on this aspect of Ned; it's so admirable.

WW:  Let's talk about some of your movies. What was it like working with Keanu Reeves on Generation Um?

JO:  He's a genuinely nice guy. We were both hockey players growing up, and we both talked a lot about Buddhism. He's very grounded, spiritual and sweet. I played Keanu's younger cousin Rick, who thinks he's the coolest because he lives in New York.

WW:  Then there's the The Girl Most Likely, a romantic comedy that opens later this summer.

JO:  Darren Criss brings Kristen Wiig to party with all of his young friends, so it's me and Julia Macchio, Ralph Macchio's daughter.

WW:  What about Beneath? It looks like a horror film that's a cross between Hitchcock's Lifeboat and Piranha.

JO:  It's coming out in July, but it's not just a horror movie. Larry Fessenden is an environmentalist, so he makes these allegories, and the theme is often what happens when man messes with nature and nature comes right back. Beneath is about a bunch of kids who go out to party on a lake and trash it, and then killer fish come to get us. But what's really scary is what we do to survive. We start turning on one another. It's pretty cool, and the tagline is: "They're only friends on the surface."

WW:  What do you do in your free time? Do you have hobbies?

JO:  I run a lot, but I don't listen to music while I do it. I meditate instead. And I read a lot, like Krishnamurti, Eastern philosophy.

WW:  Meantime, The Nance has been extended, so you're working through August 11.

JO:  I'm so happy about that. Lots of people don't want to risk producing a play that is a little edgy, so I love Lincoln Center. They are so brave. They aren't just looking for a crowd-pleaser. They want to put on productions that make people feel things and think about things. And this play does both so well. It's hilarious, but it also has the deepest emotional life you could ask for.

WW:  So what's next?

JO:  I want to keep doing as much theater as I can. I feel it's the best way to grow. Also, I love the community aspect of it. I have no problem doing theater for little money as long as the story is worth telling. All you can hope for is to do a job you love with people who have the same values. I could not be luckier or happier across the board with this entire experience. It's been unbelievable.

The Nance plays now through Aug. 11 at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.; (212) 239-6200. Info:

(Wong recently celebrated his 25th anniversary of editing entertainment at the N.Y. Daily News; he also is an award-winning playwright.)

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