By James Cooper
“The Nance” is Douglas Carter Beane’s play about stereotypically camp burlesque comics who play as homosexuals, although many of them are actually straight. This style of performance is exemplified by Bert Lahr’s swishy Cowardly Lion, although Lahr himself was straight as his son, critic John Lahr, would certainly attest.
This is a sympathetic portrait of gay men in a repressive time who have to speak in code and use double-meaning gestures to signal their interest, so as to avoid being arrested. In “The Nance,” the principal protagonist is played by Nathan Lane, who acknowledged that he was gay after the Matthew Shepard murder.
These character comedians were called “nances” and Lane’s character, Chauncey Miles, is like many of them struggling with his own identity. And as Lane plays Miles, he is an over-the-top limp-wristed fairy, “kind of like a Negro doing blackface,” Miles admits, as quoted in a highly positive Washington Post review.
The show is directed by Jack O’Brien and has a rotating set by John Lee Beatty featuring the burlesque stage on one side and Miles’s apartment on the other.
Beyond Lane, cast members include Jenni Barber, Andréa Burns, Cady Huffman, Mylinda Hull, Geoffrey Allen Murphy, Jonny Orsini and Lewis J. Stadlen.
Since this is a show about burlesque, it has original music and arrangements by Glen Kelly, orchestrations by Larry Blank, is conducted by David Gursky and the choreography is by Joey Pizzi.
The strongest part of the show is, of course, Lane as Miles, dealing with the contradictions of his life and trying to find and cement relationships with other men. Writing for the Associated Press, Mark Kennedy says that “Lane as the tortured soul at the play’s heart is magnificent — showing sides that are charming, witty, savage, self-destructive and yearning.”
Love seems to be in the air for Chauncey after he picks up a young man in the Automat, apparently a common trysting place of the period, but the relationship doesn’t last.
One of the highlights of this strong and powerful play shows Lane defending the whole idea of burlesque in court, as it is a dying kind of entertainment. Another shows Miles trying to understand why he can’t seem to remain monogamous.
The play ends with Miles appearing in full drag as Hortense, an old harlot and a completely broken man.
Playwright Douglas Carter Beane wrote the screenplay for “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” and has written a new book for this year’s revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” His play “The Little Dog Laughed” was nominated for a Tony for Best Play in 2007 for which Julie White won a Tony for Best Actress in a Play.
He wrote the book for the stage musical “Xanadu” and was nominated for a Tony for his “doctoring” of the book for the stage musical “Sister Act.”
James Cooper is a freelance writer covering all things Theater and Fairfield County. His work can be found on Examiner.com.