Theater review by David Cote. Lyceum Theatre (see Broadway). By Douglas Carter Beane. Dir. Jack O’Brien. With Nathan Lane. 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.
Douglas Carter Beane has a million great jokes in him, but only a few good plays. The Nance, a heartfelt period piece about coded and censored gay life in 1930s New York, is one of the good ones. Coming after 2010’s numbingly quippy Mr. and Mrs. Fitch, this is Beane’s finest straight (well, straight-acting) play since The Little Dog Laughed. It also goes deeper, providing a humane and psychologically messy portrait of self-loathing and social progress, lovingly delivered by the perfect cast and crew. The season isn’t over yet, but The Nance may turn out to be its dramatic high point.
Before I give the impression that Beane has written a moralizing weepie about the bad ole days, when gay men found anonymous sex in secret spots under constant fear of arrest, be assured: The Nance is howlingly funny, with several laugh-out-loud burlesque interludes. And it’s nuanced, with a complex, flawed protagonist. Chauncey Miles (Lane) is a closeted comic performer who specializes in the “nance act”—limp-wristed, effeminate types, unfazed by the half-naked strippers around them. When Chauncey and one-night stand Ned (Jonny Orsini) fall into a serious relationship, the politically conservative but personally flighty performer toys with monogamy. But he’s too set in his ways, and his act, to evolve for love—or save his skin when Mayor La Guardia cracks down on public lewdness in the theater.
Beane is in top form, tossing off glittering epigrams, but also crafting rich, flowing dialogue and giving even minor roles strokes of shading. Jack O’Brien stages the comedy skits and regular scenes with equal gusto. Lane shows his enormous range, expertly landing punch lines before punching us in the gut. Perhaps it’s heteronormative of me to say, but The Nance can attract man or woman, gay or straight—even the undecided.—David Cote
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