Tag Archives: Nathan Lane

Millenium Retreats

[Note: I had the opportunity to travel to London in July. What follows is one in an occasional series to report on the theatre productions I attended while there.]

As much as I love New York City theatre, I love London theatre more. It saddens me to report, then, that I found the most recent theatrical season there — at least based upon my own experiences — to be wanting. Angels in America by Tony Kushner at The National exemplifies this state of affairs.

While there, I could only manage to swing tickets for Millennium Approaches (I will have to see Perestroika via NT Live at my local cinema). I love this play. I saw soon after it transferred from the Public Theater back in the 1990’s. I believe it to be one of the most important American plays ever; it is also certainly a recent classic of the world stage. It powerful, resonant, funny, poignant, and painful. The HBO adaptation directed by Mike Nicholas was a rare transfer to the screen that did the original justice. On a bad day, The National does good work; on a great day, it shoots for the stars. The National knows this play. It provided an important foundational production before it even came to New York. So that this production was lackadaisical is both surprising and deeply disappointing.

Director Marianne Elliott comes to this production on the heels of her work on War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. As a consequence of only seeing Millennium, I could only glimpse at the angel effects that would receive greater play in Perestroika. The first part of the play, which offers the growing struggle between the realism and the magical of magical realism, felt extremely claustrophobic. I was unclear why the powers that be chose to perform the play on the Lyttelton stage and not the Olivier (which is unconstrained by a proscenium and allows for a more epic and less naturalistic scope). I understood that Elliott was slowly opening up her space as the evening went on, but I found the choice to constrain the energy of the show rather than setting free.

On a personal note, I came to New York City to attend university in September 1985 and lived in the city that Kushner describes. Elliott here too does not capture the feel of the time or place. The rawness and grit of New York pre-Bloomberg is missing; the set reflects the gentrification of the 21st century and so the danger and the counter-cultural excitement is missing.

It is with the acting that the production most lagged. James McCardle fails to capture the hyperkinetic energy and driving guilt of Louis. Nathan Lane has been pursuing more serious roles of late (such as his recent portrayal of Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh), but I found him an unconvincing Roy Cohn. After all, Cohn is a man Donald Trump counts as a mentor, and the cold reptilian nature of the man (both as historical figure as Kushner character)  should be front and center. Lane let too much heart leak through. That he shines in the small comic role of the ghost Prior simply reinforced how out-of-place he is as Cohn. I am all for actors getting out of their comfort zones and working muscles they do not normally use, but the casting choice here upset the balance of the play. And then there is Andrew Garfield. I wanted to like him. I was rooting for him. I enjoy most of his non-Spiderman film work. I do not pretend to understand his comments about his sexual identity while working on this production, but he just did not “get” Prior. He was indicating his way through the part, obviously putting on a fey voice rather than organically incorporating it into the character. There is a moment late in the evening when Prior is being examined and we get to witness the full extent of the damages to his body. With both Stephen Spinella and Justin Kirk, this is a moment of horror. Here, it was more on the order of “well, Garfield is really fit”.

As Joe Pitt, Russell Tovey really hits it out of the park. He poured confusion, pain, and conflicting priorities into his character. I don’t know why, but I am also surprised by the depth and nuance Tovey brings to his stage work from History Boys to A View from the Bridge. I should just realize he’s a great stage actor. And he had in Denise Gough as Harper an able scene partner who could match him complexity for complexity. Again, though, when Joe and Harper Pitt occupy the core of your emotional heartbreak, your Angels in America is in trouble.

I want this production of Angels of America to be good because I want all productions of Angels in America to be good. So perhaps I am being ridiculously optimistic that this is just a slow windup to a fantastic Perestroika. I am not holding my breath.

The Nance: Good Theatre Trying to be Great

[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.