The Boys of Burlesque: Nathan Lane, Jack O'Brien and Douglas Carter Beane Dish on The Nance

By Adam Hetrick
April 13, 2013

Tony Award winner Nathan Lane explores the darker side of burlesque's laughs in The Nance, which opens on Broadway April 15.

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"Any burlesque theatre in America was full of funny goings-on," says Tony winner Lane, referencing his latest role as gay burlesque performer Chauncey Miles in The Nance—a new dark comedy from Tony nominee Douglas Carter Beane, currently playing the Lyceum Theatre.

Known for his customary wit and ability to arm his characters with diamond-tipped one-liners, Beane is charting darker, more personal territory with The Nance, which takes its title from the effeminate male or homosexual stock character featured in the burlesque sketches that were a prominent form of American entertainment from the mid-1800s through the early 1940s.

"There was what has been referred to – I always enjoy this phrase," Lane laughs slyly, "as the 'Pansy Craze' of the 1920s and early '30s." He is referring to actors like Gene Malin, known for such songs as "I'd Rather Be Spanish (Than Mannish)" and what Lane calls a "lovely number" titled "That's What's the Matter with Me."

While heterosexual men historically portrayed a majority of Nance roles, Beane has created a scenario in which a gay entertainer gains notoriety for his performance in the camp role.

The Nance is set within the flickering decline of Manhattan's burlesque scene in the late '30s, as Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia set out to clean up what he considered some of Gotham's less desirable aspects in anticipation of the World's Fair. Chauncey, whose headlining performance as the Nance begins to draw gay crowds to the theatre, finds himself to be persona non grata in this new apple-cheeked Big Apple.

"It was daring to actually be gay on stage," Lane says. Throughout the play's burlesque sketches, Chauncey is questioned, "Are you a Nance?" to which he replies, "Doesn't necessarily mean I'm a bad person."

Meanwhile, offstage, "he leads a life where he goes to the automat... and tries to pick up a straight guy, has sex, and sends them on their way. That's all he wants," Lane says.

"Even in today's gay culture people do not realize how difficult it was for people in the '30s and '40s, not only to get together, but to be decent, to have a life, to not feel marginalized," says Tony-winning director Jack O'Brien. The irony is that Chauncey is permitted to play in drag, which city officials considered masquerade however, portraying "a big sissy," according to O'Brien, was viewed as perverse.

Nathan Lane in The Nance.
photo by Joan Marcus

These cultural fault lines fascinate Beane, who says that while he is encouraged by the progress the LGBT community has made socially and politically, he believes it is still haunted by painful and closeted past. "I wanted to remind people about where we come from and who we are. There is still this element of self-loathing to us, and editing who we are—'Shush, don't say that and don't be that way'—more than any other community that I've seen."

Penned with Lane in mind, The Nance draws on the many talents of the gifted actor who made a name for himself in Broadway comedies, earning Tony Awards for The Producers and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—but has proven, in recent years, equally adept in the deeper dramatic waters of Eugene O'Neill and Samuel Beckett.

While Beane gilds the proceedings with bawdy burlesque sketches, pastiche musical numbers by Glen Kelly, and even throws in a handful of strippers playing the ukulele, "the heart of the show is this love story," Lane says.

The limelight casts shadows across Chauncey's personal life—a relationship with a younger, more progressive gay man. "It's a gay man of one generation and a gay man of the next generation. Everyone else is kind of moving on, and moving forward, and he's not," Lane reflects.

"His tragedy is something I think that everyone can relate to—he can't accept this kid's unconditional love and he rejects it. I think he's a victim of the times and of his own self-loathing."

All the while, Lane admits to being dazed by the amount of dramatic plates he and the creative team keep spinning with The Nance. "At times it sounds like a gay Coen Brothers movie," he laughs. "It's pretty extraordinary."