[This review originally appeared on nytheatre.com: 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.
I had the opportunity this afternoon to see The Luck of the Irish by Kristen Greenidge at the Claire Tow Theatre, which houses LCT3 (Lincoln Center’s space for new writers). If the play is a bit wobbly, it is still worth a look. One of the advantages of LCT3 is that tickets are only $20 a piece. At that price, one can feel free to take more of a chance with unknown material. And, as with this play, when there is a great deal to capture the interest but there are flaws present too — well, you can still feel like you’ve come out ahead. And with this work, the audience certainly does come out ahead.
The Luck of the Irish is one of the ever-growing number of plays that are in conversation with Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The plot turns on a piece of real estate, and the over-arching question is who has the right to it. Though as more than one character hints at — white or black — we are all visitors to these shores from some place else. Ultimately, I think it is great that A Raisin in the Sun is getting this attention and that many of the themes and issues it addressed are still relevant today. A Raisin in the Sun was starting to become a musty museum piece in our collective theatrical sense, but it shouldn’t the way, say, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible has. Lodged within Hansberry’s work about the Younger family trying and achieving the cornerstone of the American Dream (ownership of a house), are questions about African-American identity within the larger framework of American hegemonic society.
But on to Luck of the Irish. The fascinating aspect here is that a down-on-their-heals Irish-American family, the Donovans, has to serve as “ghost buyers” for a wealthy African-American family in 1958. This is the only way that Rex and Lucy Taylor can move into an affluent Boston suburb without getting firebombed, as they had been two years previously in Newton. The dynamic between the Taylors and Donovans is endlessly fascinating. The antagonism between Lucy and Patty Ann Donovan is fueled as much by class as it is by race. There is only one scene in which they are alone — where they meet in a diner — and it crackles. So much resentment, animosity, and condescension informs this moment that in many ways it speaks for this nation’s continued simmering racial divide; the dust up between Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James Crowley gains is given significant context.
Lucy and Rex form, to me, one of the most interesting married couples to appear on the American stage. They are NOT the Youngers. The Youngers, while not exactly naive, make the move to their Chicago suburb with a certain amount of idealism intact. The Taylors are under no such illusions. This is their second bite at the apple. As stated above, in their first attempt, they were forced out because of arson. Here, they are clearly manipulating the system — as well as the financial need of the Donovans — to get their house. And this is not some artifact of the American Dream or some representation of equality and what they hope to be a colorblind society in some far off future. Lucy is motivated as much by bourgeois avarice as anything else. And once in her home, she will not leave because her pride will not force her out. She believes she is as above Patty Ann as Patty Ann believes she is above Lucy. This is a wonderful conceit. And the twin roar from these two strong-willed unforgiving women would be enough play in and of itself. Eisa Davis, who plays Lucy, and Amanda Quaid, who plays Patty Ann, could drive this play all by themselves. I like too that the ones to break the glass ceilings and racial barriers are not doing it for a larger sense of duty to a community. They are doing it selfishly for themselves. Others will simply come along and take advantage of their tenacity. Mad Men often plays with similar strategies. Peggy is trying to get ahead for herself, not a sense of sisterhood. In a contemporary scene, the older Patty has an eruption of venom about being passed over that has been infecting her for 50 years. According to her, first come the English, then the Irish, then the Italians, and finally the African-Americans. It is of interest to note that the Taylors bought the house from an Italian family, so Patty Ann has been displaced twice. The America of Greenidge’s work is a Darwinian cesspool of class versus class, and race versus race. That which should unite us is not as strong as what divides us.
The play moves between the 1950’s and the present (or near present). I disagree with Charles Isherwood of The New York TImes here. For me, while the scenes from the 1950’s crackled, the ones from the present fizzled. The stakes and the jeopardy which were so intrinsic to the earlier scenes of the play in an organic way were non-existent in the later scenes. Indeed, the threat to losing the house turned out to be no threat at all and existed seemly to move the plot along. To be honest, the events and various crises of this half often felt contrived.
All and all though, The Luck of the Irish is a worthwhile evening of theatre. The play adds a very interesting perspective on the question of ownership in the African-American community. As such, it is responding as much to Toni Morrison (with The Bluest Eye) as it is Hansberry.