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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Lyceum


  Jonny Orsini and Nathan Lane/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Put simply, Douglas Carter Beane's The Nance is one of the best new American plays of the year, and the perfectly cast Nathan Lane gives the best performance of the year in a straight play. In fact, Lane gives one of the best performances of his life (along with his work in The Producers and apparently The Iceman Cometh, which I missed in Chicago). If that isn't enough reason to see this very funny and ultimately very affecting play, be advised that regional theaters probably won't be able to match Lincoln Center Theater's top-notch production and that no other actor will be able to approximate Lane's gut-busting and gut-wrenching star turn.
The time is 1937 and the primary locations (on John Lee Beatty's beautifully detailed sets, which revolve on a turntable) are an automat, the Irving Place Theatre and Chauncey's midtown apartment. In the first scene we see how gay men met in 1930s New York – with coded glances, gestures and then conversations in a few coffeehouses and restaurants known to attract men of that persuasion. In the opening scene Chauncey meets Ned (Jonny Orsini), a handsome kid from upstate New York who has left his wife and is sleeping on a park bench in Riverside Park. In appearance and behavior, Ned is too good to be true. And that's about the only negative thing I can say about either Beane's script or Jack O'Brien's direction. Orsini is terrific as Ned, but the character would be more believable if he had a flaw or two.
Chauncey has flaws, but he's also a hoot – whether he's mocking Ned in his dingy little apartment or camping it up on the Irving Place Theatre stage. He plays the Nance, i.e. the flamboyant gay character, and he gets most of the big laughs. Usually a straight actor played the Nance (think Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz), but Chauncey is the exception to the rule. This allows Beane to switch from yuks to pathos after police raid the theater and force Efram (the excellent Louis J. Stadlen), the troupe leader and Chauncey's onstage sparring partner, to minimize the "degenerate" routines. It's no surprise that Lane can milk laughs one minute and then have us on the verge of tears the next. 
What's more surprising is how funny the burlesque routines are. The jokes sound old fashioned and simple-minded on the page, but as performed here they're a delight. Bring back burlesque! Actually, burlesque is having something of a comeback in some downtown theaters, though it's hardly as popular or prevalent as it was in 1937 New York. A sample joke: "What, is that Louis XIV?" "Yes, it goes back on the 15th." Trust me, it's funny when Lane, Stadlen and company put across these rickety jokes. The troupe's three dancers (with hearts of gold, of course) are played by Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber and Andréa Burns. They couldn't be better. Huffman and Stadlen are also Producers alums, and this is a very happy reunion indeed.
Beane and O'Brien have thoroughly researched burlesque routines, and their re-creations feel utterly authentic. Joey Pizzi's unshowy choreography and Ann Roth's unfabulous costumes help conjure the waning days of burlesque.
The Nance isn't likely to have a Producers-style run, so it will need a lot of good word of mouth. Lincoln Center Theatre hasn't spared a cent on this production, so I hope it at least recoups its investment. With Golden Boy, Ann and now The Nance, Lincoln Center Theater is having a superb season.


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