Living in 1930s New York City was akin to living in a pressure cooker; or at least, that’s the impression you get from “The Nance,” starring tour-de-force Nathan Lane under the direction of Jack O’Brien. In this show, produced by Lincoln Center and running on Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, Lane portrays Chauncey Miles, a “nance” performer — that is, a foppish, silly gay caricature who uses double entendre and innuendo to make fun of homosexual culture as part of a burlesque cabaret. But his success and fame would only be ideal if only he weren’t a nance in real life — that is, a formerly closeted but increasingly overt gay man who begins to feel comfortable in his own skin just when the political climate starts scowling at anyone who dares to participate in such a “sick” scene, much less celebrate it onstage.
Because of the cognitive dissonance that Chauncey Miles is forced to exist within, he acts out by pushing away friends and loved ones with self-defacing humor and acerbic barbs. Beneath his glib veneer, he seems to be a man desperately unsure of himself and craving acceptance — not, of course, from like-minded “fairies” or his extremely patient boyfriend (Jonny Orsini), but rather from the most abusive and unlikely corners of the New York City social scene, such as the conservative Republican party under the tight-fisted reelection campaign of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. He is the tragic poster boy of the self-hating homosexual, and when he isn’t being laughed at onstage he doesn’t seem to understand his place in the world.
Of course, masterful playwright Douglas Carter Beane is going to throw every conflict of morality and motive at our unstable protagonist until he’s dizzy from constantly turning a blind eye toward where the wind is blowing. The play amps up Chauncey’s external persecution and internal distress until he’s in a bind tighter than LaGuardia’s crackdown on “deviance.”
“The Nance” seems to be constantly and inevitably veering toward disaster, even when things seem good on the surface — but you can’t look away. The only thing keeping the growing sense of dread from strangling your windpipe are the ingeniously juxtaposed scenes of vaudevillian burlesque comedy that grow increasingly darker to complement the show’s dark undertones. Still, there’s room to laugh right up until the seemingly inevitable end.
Could Chauncey have made choices to steer his fate in another direction or were the world’s injustices stacked against him? It’s one of the questions that “The Nance” brilliantly raises and leaves lingering through the last haunting tableau. And it couldn’t be more perfectly timed with the past month’s sociopolitical tensions or exuberant pride celebrations. Thankfully, Lane is extending his performances through August — but there are only a handful of weeks left, so be sure to see him own this career-topping role before the curtain comes down for good.
Extended through Aug. 11
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