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Nathan the Nance


If you're a theater maven, you can't help being a fan of Nathan Lane. While he's had success in movies (notably The Birdcage) and TV (recent recurring role on The Good Wife), the stage is his natural element (The Producers,The Addams Family, Guys and Dolls, etc., etc.), and he's a theatrical treasure, who can sing, do broad comedy, and yet do serious drama, too.

In the new Broadway production, The Nance (at the Lyceum Theatre), he has a role that was literally written for him by Douglas Carter Beane. He plays Chauncey Miles, a nance, the mincing comic on a vaudeville bill who gets laughs with homosexual double entendres. Apparently the men who played those roles (think Bert Lahr or Phil Silvers) were usually straight, so having it done by a homosexual was "like having a Negro do blackface." That's the case with Chauncey.  While Lane is openly gay, Chauncey couldn't risk that in the '30s, and so the play explores the tension between his professional success and personal insecurity.

This dichotomy allows Lane to show off both his skill with a zinger and his ability to portray a person in real pain. (Those upturned eyebrows help with that.) He's surrounded by a first-rate cast. There's the Broadway veteran, Lewis J. Stadlen, his foil in brilliant routines  in the Marx Brothers/Abbott & Costello mold. There's a trio of strippers with hearts of gold (Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber, and Andrea Burns) who are part of his offstage family. And there's a young New York newcomer (Johnny Orsini) who becomes his love interest and a threat to his independence.

The bigger threat turns out to be the authorities who are intent on shutting down the burlesque houses on moral grounds. This occupies most of Act 2, which moves a lot more slowly than the fast-paced hilarity of Act 1. That's not due to Jack O'Brien's direction, which deftly works with John Lee Beatty's sets (rotating among the stage, backstage, and Chauncey's apartment, with an authentic looking Horn & Hardart Automat thrown in). No, it's the script, which doesn't really know how to end. On the other hand, burlesque didn't die overnight, and Chauncey's denial - about that reality and romantic commitment - is part of the pathos. This is the world before Stonewall, before Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, when proud men had to live in fear. We can laugh, but also be thankful that we've come a long way.