Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Nance: Good Theatre Trying to be Great

[This review originally appeared on The Nance.]

The Nance, a Lincoln Center Theater production currently playing at the Lyceum Theater, is a very good play that has ambitions to be a great play. Unfortunately, it misses that lofty mark.

Playwright Douglas Carter Beane (The Little Dog Laugh) dramatizes the world of burlesque in late 1930’s New York. He focuses in particular on the role of the nance, an effeminate or homosexual male character that was part and parcel of the stock repertoire of the form. At this time, Mayor Fiorrello La Guardia vigorously sought to close down the burlesque houses — not just for the striptease but for the nance acts as well – and thus “clean up” the city of lewd behavior.

As the nance Chauncey Miles, Nathan Lane astounds. I am often ambivalent about Lane’s work. While he rightly receives acclaim as one of our stage’s leading comic actors, I have also found his work to be undisciplined and at times borderline self-indulgent in trying to force every last laugh out of an audience. With The Nance, though, he is in top form – what his work in Butley should have been. Yes, there are the trademark one-liners, slow burns, and physical bits of business, but there are all utilized in service of character and story. Lane also does equally well in revealing the complexities, contradictions, and ugliness of Chauncey’s character. In the second act, when Chauncey’s life takes a wrong turn after a run-in with the law, Lane embraces that darkness with a passion and integrity that is quite rare. His ferocity when he breaks up with his lover Ned (Jonny Orsini) because he, Chauncey, cannot stand the thought of being loved is both brutal and unvarnished.

Lane shares the stage, for the most part, with a strong and talented ensemble. Andréa Burns and Jenni Barber, as two of the women in the burlesque show, add strong comedic support. Lewis J. Stadlen provides texture to Efram, the show’s manager, who constantly navigates his instinctual dislike of Chauncey’s nature with a quiet desire to be ethically responsible. It is Cady Huffman as Sylvie, a performer and committed Marxist, who shines. Her love-hate relationship with Chauncy provides much of the spark and dramatic tension on stage. Her struggles in many ways mirror Chauncey’s own. I was glad that Beane provided such a rich narrative arc and backstory for a character another writer might easily have kept boxed in for easy laughs and sexual puns. Indeed, one of the highlights of the show is how burlesque is portrayed not so much for its seedier qualities (thought that is there) but that is served an important social need as a subversive art form.

The one disappointment in the cast is Orsini as Ned. A nice guy whom Chauncey finds, takes in, and in the end turns out, Ned never commands attention or focus the way the other five characters do. Ultimately, the problem here rests with the script. By design, he is the male ingénue to serve the plot needs of Chauncey’s life. He comes into Chauncey’s life all too easily and leaves all too easily. And so, it never really matter who is on the other end of the table from Chauncey being berated just so there is someone. There was an opportunity to find some lyricism in Ned’s naivety and simple ways, but that opportunity was missed.

Beane is looking to place his work on the same level as Cabaret and John Osborne’s The Entertainer, and it is here that he is unsuccessful. Both of the other works use a seedy theatrical form as a metaphor for what is occurring in larger societal context beyond the stage. So Cabaret portrayed the failures of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the National Socialist Party in Germany, and The Entertainer used the collapse of the English music hall tradition to reflect upon the decline of the British Empire during the Crisis of Suez. However, the events of The Nance never feel like they have much of an impact or connection beyond the specific community of New York burlesque. And as reprehensible as Mayor La Guardia’s actions may have been, given what else was going on in the late 1930’s, they hardly rise to the level of misdemeanor. Unlike then Archie Rice from The Entertainer, Chauncey only stands for himself.

That said, spending a theatrical evening with Chauncey would be a worthwhile evening indeed. The backstage comedy elements are flawlessly executed, the dramatic moments are honest and cathartic, and Nathan Lane commands both equally well.

Something Wild this Way Comes (but not for long)

I had the opportunity to catch Alan Cumming in Macbeth tonight. My bar of expectations was pretty high, and the production did not disappoint. I had no doubt that Cumming would hit it out of the park. But I also thought the show would be a kind of stunt — we would just be so dazzled by the acting tour-de-force that the actual directorial idea for this Macbeth would be, well, prosaic. And I was wrong.

Cumming’s Macbeth is a patient in an insane asylum. The only other characters present are a doctor and nurse (from Lady M’s mad scene later in the play), both of whom observe the proceedings from a distance. Obviously, such a setting opens up the psychological aspects of the play. But it also reinforces how important the supernatural forces are in the work, not just for plot purposes but also for how they inform us on the state of Macbeth’s soul as well as that of Scotland’s (and, by extension, England’s at the time this was first performed).

I found the production to be quite revelatory. I have seen a fair number of productions of this play over the years, but none really gave me much insight into the work. Indeed, a number of them have been flat out boring — I’m looking at you, Kelsey, Grammer. And so, I often preferred to read it to seeing it. Cumming’s work changed all that, but I do not know how I will go and see a “traditional” rendition again.

Since the witches and their prophesies are now a part of Macbeth’s consciousness, it is much clearer as to how they both torment and drive him…how they become a part of him. The play hinges on the line, “When shall we three meet again?” The surprise on his face when he learns that Macduff was the production of a C-section serves as an extremely poignant moment here. And, of course, the insanity, the depravity, the blood, and the violence will pass on down to each generation. As I sat and watched, I marveled that King James I actually let this be performed at all (the mirrors scene aside).

Cumming is exceptional. Though he gives a strong performance as Macbeth, it is when he plays Lady Macbeth that he really shines. (Also, his quite comic Duncan provides some much needed levity.) This a modern retelling, but the contemporary setting does not get in the way. Even the tech  enhances — particularly the view screens and surveillance cameras — the intellectual concept of the production. Nothing is done just because it is cool. Though there is much that is cool but also holds up dramatically.

Macbeth is playing for a very limited run, so if you are in the New York City area at all in the next two months, it should definitely be on your must-see list.