Nathan Lane (The Birdcage, Modern Family) is the main reason to watch Douglas Carter Beane’s Tony Award-nominated play The Nance, produced by Lincoln Center Theater, in the version airing this Friday night (9-11 pm ET, Oct. 10, check local listings) for the PBS series Live from Lincoln Center.
Lane is as expressive and entertaining as ever when the material permits as flamboyant homosexual Chauncey Miles, a headline nance (a theater term for a parody of a gay man and shortened version of “nancy boy” which was code for homosexual) during New York City’s 1930s burlesque era. Alternating composer Glen Kelly’s songs with sketches and monologues involving a younger man with whom Lane’s character becomes romantically partnered, the 2-hour televised play is, in turns, historically intriguing, enjoyable and maudlin. The depiction of this type of closeted gay performer’s life and work – the nance was typically portrayed by a heterosexual man – who is inherently suppressed and practically forced into dark, shadowy promiscuity is bound to become sobering and The Nance does.
No problem there, though the somber moments stop the show and highlight the play’s weak transitions and naturalistic theme, which amounts to a sad but interesting slice of gay life in Depression-era Manhattan. The Nance Starring Nathan Lane, part of the PBS Arts Fall Festival, is likely to enlighten and entertain, especially with such a talented actor in the demanding title role, as it showcases tacky routines that brought laughter to burlesque houses downtown while Mayor Fiorello La Guardia pledged to clean up the city in anticipation of the World’s Fair by pushing people like the nance (who is, incidentally, a Republican), off stage. Police brutality and other topical issues come to the forefront as half-naked dames and various show people stake a claim and make an exit. But The Nance, driven by Lane and a heartbreaking performance by Jonny Orsini as the man who tries to love him, leaves the audience feeling less empathetic than it should.