Nathan Lane has one of the most interesting faces in showbusiness: his thick black eyebrows seem to almost always be forming an upside down V, giving the impression of endless mirth, while his Mr. Potato Head shaped face is so elastic his muscles may as well be made of rubber bands. Which makes him the perfect actor for Chauncey Miles, a flamboyant vaudevillian who, in 1937 New York, finds his career in jeopardy when Mayor LaGuardia attempts to shut down burlesque and, in particular, “Nance” acts, for which Chauncey is a star among the gay underground. The part allows Mr. Lane to gallivant around the stage, sing risqué songs, make lewd gestures, and milk double entendres for all they’re worth. He is hysterical, a Groucho Marx with the body of Lou Costello; it’s a supreme comic performance.
But Chaunce isn’t your stereotypical member of the raincoat brigade—though you can find him late at night in the automat, eyes cast down in a newspaper while simultaneously scoping out potential one night stands, he is a card carrying Republican who insists that LaGuardia is just playing for reelection and that Roosevelt is a dirty pinko who should be shipped off to the Soviet Union. When his boyfriend, Ned (Jonny Orsini), tells him the story of Damon and Pythias, he slams the Greek myth as left-wing propaganda. Still, we never quite believe old Chaunce; his Republicanism is at the center of his tragedy, which is a conflict between a deep desire to belong to the mainstream and an opposing desire to accept himself as one of society’s outcasts. The Nance act itself is a nice manifestation of this tension, for we are never quite sure if the jokes are lovingly self-effacing or viciously self-loathing. He pretty much nails it when he refers to himself as “kind of like a Negro doing blackface.”
While this is undeniably The Nathan Lane Show, our star has the fortune of a strong supporting cast. Mr. Orsini is his Bud Abbott, pushing Chuancey into his best comic moments; in particular, there is a brilliant scene in which Ned appears for the first time onstage and Chauncey has to guide him through his lines, all while trying to make sense of everything for their audience. Indeed, it rivals some of the great moments in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. And Jenni Baber, playing the showgirl Joan, evokes Judy Holliday’s Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday; she gives us such squeaky-voiced gems as, “I don’t like Mussolini. I don’t like Hitler. That’s just my personality.”
Unfortunately, The Nance does not always succeed in its more emotional scenes. The comedy is stronger than the drama, and too much crying gives way to a lackluster cribbing of Lenny Bruce’s later years. Still, the ending manages to be wrenching, and Douglas Carter Beane’s script, despite its flaws, provides the backbone to one of the best Broadway shows of the season.