(Michael Feingold’s article appeared in the Village Voice, 4/16.)
Douglas Carter Beane's The Nance (Lyceum Theatre) has got what it deserves from Lincoln Center Theater: a first-rate production, handsomely staged by Jack O'Brien, with a gigantically fine performance by Nathan Lane in the title role. Beane's play deserves these splendid enhancements, not because it's perfect in itself—its premise and many of its smaller points are highly debatable—but because, like far too few plays seen in New York these days, it sets out to wrestle with a big subject, on a big scale, in a wide-ranging, spectacular style that will simultaneously entertain the audience and make it think.
Beane uses the work's value as comic diversion to enrich the dark matters he's dealing with, not to cover them up or distract from them. You must take his play, and argue with it, as a large, rich, substantive whole, not as a string of set pieces in which the fun can be disentangled from the sour realities.
Lane's performance as Beane's hero, the bitter, self-hating homosexual burlesque comedian Chauncey Miles, embodies the complexity perfectly: You constantly watch Chauncey drawing a sharp line between his offstage behavior and the "nance" routine that's made him the main draw at a seedy burleycue house on Irving Place circa 1937. At the same time, Lane, elegantly steered by O'Brien's direction, always shows you how Chauncey's private emotions bleed into his stylized stage business—and, more disconcertingly, how his act's stereotyped postures seep into and warp his offstage life. Having made the twinkle-eyed cartoon swish with the sissified hand-waves his professional specialty, Chauncey is his own dybbuk, a man possessed in life, thanks to his dismissive view of himself, by the role he plays onstage. He is not, you might say, a happy camper.