“Gay rights” wasn’t a term in 1937 when “The Nance” is set, yet it is painfully topical for the equal rights movement.
That jokes, which were dusty when vaudeville was dying, can be funny says a lot about what happens on the stage. And that is because of Nathan Lane (Broadway’s “The Producers,” TV’s “The Good Wife”).
Lane is brilliant as Chauncey, a gay burlesque performer who can turn anything into a double entendre with rolled eyes, swiveling hips and stretched-out syllables. He plays a nance, a derogatory term for a gay man, and the actor himself is gay.
“Hi! Simply, hi!” Chauncey says in his routines, as bells chime and he minces about the stage.
Off stage, Chauncey is a serious, complicated man — gay, Republican and extremely arch.
Douglas Carter Beane proves yet again that he understands how funny camp can be. He wrote the under-appreciated “Xanadu” and the screenplay for “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.”
“The Nance” is not just outrageous gay jokes; it has a very serious underpinning of when gay men were rounded up in raids, beaten and arrested for the crime of simply being gay.
The show opens at the automat, and for those who never experienced the joy of feeding dimes into a slot and having the tiny glass door pop open to reveal a sandwich or a slice of pie, automats were a beloved New York institution. This one in Greenwich Village is also a hookup place for gays.
Here, Chauncey meets a starving, strapping Ned (Johnny Orsini) and brings him backs to his basement apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. Chauncey figures it will be a one-night stand. It turns into a marriage, though even contemplating gay marriage then was like talking about commuting to the moon now.
Ned is good, decent, hopeful and sweet. And completely ripped, which the audience knows because he has full frontal nudity scenes. Chauncey has a darker side, and he prefers casual sex to a committed relationship. He also has a sense of righteous outrage that he cannot quell, even when warned to do so. Such lack of restraint can cost him everything.
Furious that that various self-appointed morality agents are making enough noise to get Mayor La Guardia to sanction raids, Chauncey takes a brave and ultimately dangerous stance. Fully dressed, Lane gives one of the most naked and honest performances when Chauncey appears before a judge we don’t see.
Jack O’Brien’s direction moves the action along quickly and neatly. Ann Roth’s costumes — the three strippers on stage in their get-ups and offstage in 1937 suits, hats and dresses — are wonderful. John Lee Beatty‘s sets, from the stage of the burlesque house to Chauncey’s apartment, with its bathtub in the living room, feel authentic.
And the love story just makes your heart ache. As much fun as the gags and the bump-and-grind music are, and as interesting as the politics of 1937 were, this is a love story. A wide-eyed kid comes to the big city, and a jaded city slicker helps out that kid. They fall in love and complement each other well.
But it’s a love that society and even those involved in it could not fully accept. Leaving the Lyceum Theatre, one of the two oldest Broadway venues, and walking into the daylight of 2013, it’s sobering how relevant “The Nance” remains.