Monday, August 12, 2013

A Triumphant Return for Broadway's Greatest Funnyman

Review:  The Nance
Nathan Lane commands the stage in his latest tour de force performance, as the title character in Douglas Carter Beane's The Nance.
After several forays into the world of musical theatre bookwriting, Douglas Carter Beane returns to his roots as a serio-comedic playwright with The Nance, his latest Broadway venture that is recently finished up its run at the Lyceum Theatre (and will be recorded for broadcast on PBS).  And while the play is certainly a more accomplished work than any of his musical outings, it remains a frustratingly conflicted piece that attempts a variety of things without fully succeeding at any of them.  The play wants to be a probing character study but fails to really explore the motivations of its protagonist.  It wants to make an admittedly topical political statement but ends up feeling preachy and pedantic rather than relevant and illuminating.  It wants to be both a serious drama and a low-brow comedy, but rather than complimenting one another each of these disparate elements continually undercuts the effectiveness of the other.

But at the play’s center is a Herculean performance so electric, so accomplished in its specificity and authenticity that it almost succeeds in elevating the play to the lofty realms which it so obviously aspires to.  Nathan Lane’s work as protagonist Chauncey Mills is nothing short of extraordinary, reasserting his status as one of the most accomplished stage actors of his generation.  With no disrespect meant to his very talented costars, Lane acts circles around everyone else onstage, and actually manages to make the play’s disparate tones seem organic and even necessary. 

The plot centers on Lane’s Chauncey Mills character, a man who has made a name for himself doing burlesque skits in Depression Era New York City.  Mills’ signature role is that of the overtly effeminate stock character dubbed “The Nance,” a professional choice made infinitely more complex by the fact that Mills is himself gay.  After years of anonymous sex with strangers, Mills seduces a young man named Ned who is just coming to grips with his own sexuality, and to the surprise of both men they find themselves entering a long-term relationship together.  Meanwhile, Mills’ burlesque theatre and his act in particular are coming under increasing pressure from city officials taking a stance against indecency, forcing the outspoken Mills to make a choice between being himself and suppressing his true nature to fit in.

It cannot be overstated how brilliant Nathan Lane is in the central role. From the opening moments of the show until the final curtain, Lane dominates the stage and exhibits such mastery of his craft that even his accomplished costars look like amateurs in comparison.  The play gives him ample opportunity to demonstrate his dramatic chops, while simultaneously providing him with an unending string of zingers and comic bits that utilize his unparalleled sense of comedic timing.  Throughout the play we are treated to excerpts from Mills’ stage act, and Lane absolutely kills in these scenes of perfectly reconstructed vaudeville comedy.  Where a normal actor would earn one laugh Lane manages to get three, often by using little more than a cock of the eyebrow or a sideways glance at the audience.  More miraculous still is Lane’s ability to make such carefully calculated choices feel utterly spontaneous, leaving the audience with the impression that this virtuosic performance is being created from scratch each night.

And while none of his costars are operating on Lane’s level (there are few actors in the world that could match such inspired lunacy), the rest of the cast turns in fine performances in their own right.  In his Broadway debut, Jonny Orsini charts a beautifully realized journey of self-acceptance as Mills’ lover Ned, and watching him realize that his sexuality doesn’t automatically prevent him from enjoying the perks of a domesticated life is particularly poignant in this time when marriage equality is on the forefront of the national debate.  If there is one criticism of Orsini’s performance it’s that he plays the character rather dumb, which at times comes into direct conflict with the highly literate dialogue playwright Beane has provided all of the characters.

Lewis J. Stadlen plays the lovably gruff Efram with aplomb, and makes an excellent foil for Lane during the burlesque skits that are the show’s highlight.  In a lesser actor’s hands Efram’s discomfort with Mills’ sexuality would make him the clear villain of the piece, but Stadlen tempers his performance with enough begrudging respect to make it clear that Efram isn’t a bad person.  As the trio of burlesque dancers that work at the same theatre, Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber and Andrea Burns make for excellent support, although the writing doesn’t do enough to differentiate their three characters.  Huffman (reunited with Lane after they both won Tonys for The Producers a decade ago) makes the strongest impression, although she is unfortunately saddled with the most overtly political and unnecessarily knowing dialogue.

Director Jack O’Brien keeps the evening moving at a steady pace, and during the show’s final twenty minutes manages to synthesize the disparate bits and repeating motifs into something resembling resonance.  He is aided immensely by John Lee Beaty’s marvel of a rotating set, which allows for virtually seamless transitions from one locale to the next.  Ann Roth clearly had a ball with the period costumes, and her designs for the burlesque outfits in particular possess just the right amount of winking outlandishness.  The lights and sound by Japhy Weideman and Leon Rothenberg get the job done but aren’t particularly memorable, and the original music by Glen Kelly is a nice if unassuming addition to the proceedings.

Ultimately, The Nance’s primary reason for being is to provide Nathan Lane with a showcase for his immense talents, and in that respect it succeeds wholeheartedly.  The comedic genius’ work manages to elevate Douglas Carter Beane’s passable script into something approaching greatness, and everyone involved has graciously taken a backseat while letting the master work his magic.  It is a worthwhile evening for those who are interested, although I do hope that Lane’s next Broadway outing is in a vehicle more worthy of his extraordinary gifts.

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