Monday, May 6, 2013

Constructs: The Nance and The Assembled Parties

Nathan Lane in The Nance, at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre (All photos by Joan Marcus)

Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance (at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre), set in late-Depression New York, invents a burlesque performer named Chauncey Miles (played by Nathan Lane) whose onstage persona, the “nance” or sissy in a series of revue sketches, is a way of hiding in plain sight for a gay man. Chauncey quips that “a pansy doing a pansy act is like a Negro doing blackface”; though many famous nances, like Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, were straight in real life, many were not. The play covers the demise of burlesque on the watch of New York’s puritanical, family-values mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, and his vigilant D.A., Paul Ross. It’s also about Chauncey’s inability to accept the love of a younger man, Ned (Jonny Orsini), whom he picks up at Horn & Hardart’s automat, where closeted gay men – there was effectively no other kind in 1937 – cruise, at the risk of being caught by the cops, beaten up and jailed for lewd and lascivious conduct.

We get to view a lot of burlesque in The Nance, and, staged by Jack O’Brien and costumed by the indispensable Ann Roth, it’s glorious. Lewis J. Stadlen, the hard-boiled, quick-witted comic actor – I’ve been a fan since I saw him play the young Groucho Marx in the musical Minnie’s Boys when I was in college – is Efram, the head of the troupe at the Irving Place Theatre and straight man to Chauncey, whose performance is premised on a series of hilarious double entendres. They share the stage with three buxom show girls, all expert at the art of comic sexual tension: Sylvie (Cady Huffman), a red-headed Amazon who recalls the young Lucille Ball, Joan; a blonde (Jenni Barber); and Carmen (AndrĂ©a Burns), a brunette whose specialty is Spanish dialect comedy. (She also appears in a number, “Don’t Burst My Bubble,” where she’s swathed in balloons that she keeps puncturing with her cigarette. The choreographer is Joey Pizzi.) All three are terrific, especially Huffman, who created the role of Ulla in the Broadway musical The Producers. And Lane’s nance routines are almost in Bert Lahr’s class. Beane wrote the part for him, and when you watch the show you can’t imagine anyone else playing it. And even though it’s a stretch that Chauncey’s novelty number, “Hi, Simply Hi,” turns out to be a self-defining song for a gay character, it’s wonderful to see Lane mince his way through it. (“Hi, simply hi” is his character’s signature phrase, expressing a state of uninterrupted sexual eagerness.)

Lewis J. Stadlen, Cady Huffman, Nathan Lane, and Jonny Orsini
This is a deluxe production, with beautiful sets (John Lee Beatty) and lighting (Japhy Weideman); it offers New York theatergoers a real meal. The problem is that almost everything that happens off the stage of the Irving Place Theatre is dramatically unconvincing because the playwright is working strictly from a political agenda. Beane wrote The Little Dog Laughed, a phony cautionary fable about a gay actor (Tom Everett Scott) who can only achieve stardom, even in twenty-first-century Hollywood, by pretending to be straight, and for all the style and inventiveness Lane lends to his epigrams, Chauncey Miles is a mouthpiece for a series of stands on the plight of the gay man in an intolerant America. Though his co-workers (who appear to be his only friends) are left-leaning – Sylvie is a proud Communist – Chauncey is a staunch Republican who still supports LaGuardia. Since LaGuardia, in Beane’s set-up, is the offstage oppressor, “Republican” is meant to translate as “self-hating homosexual.” That’s why Chauncey can’t commit to Ned, the pure, self-accepting swain with the courage and honesty to walk out on his wife in Buffalo and head to the Big Apple to explore his sexuality. (Orsini gives a colorless, unpersuasive performance, but the role is so implausibly shaped that I doubt anyone could carry it off. ) Chauncey settles down with Ned for a while, though the notion of parlaying a one-night stand into a relationship makes him initially uneasy. But eventually he goes back to cruising because, we’re meant to understand, that’s the only sexual life a man of his orientation has ever known; he’s supposed to be like an abused woman who seeks out more abusers. Ned finally throws in the towel, leaving Chauncey broken-hearted and incomplete. In an unfortunate moment, Chauncey breaks down on stage in the middle of a drag routine and bemoans his lover’s departure. (When Ross’s men raid the Irving Place, Efram is forced to eliminate nance sketches, but drag is allowed on the grounds that it’s just masquerade – a point of view that baffles wised-up, level-headed Efram.)

It’s bad enough that Beane sacrifices a truly original idea for a stage character – and, ultimately, his splendid leading man – to make a point. But he isn’t even consistent in his portrayal of Chauncey; he wants him to take every stance possible for a gay man working in burlesque during its twilight years. When one of the girls reports that Ross and his men are in the house, Efram orders Chauncey to make a last-minute switch and play the nance in a Frankenstein sketch (Ned, who has replaced a departing actor, is cast as the monster, a take-off on Karloff) as “a dago or a Chinaman” instead. But though Chauncey is a gifted performer, he just can’t do it; suddenly he’s incapable of pretending to be something he’s not. So he winds up in jail. In court (in the scene that begins the second act) he waxes eloquent about the principle of comic suggestiveness and proselytizes about the importance of maintaining free speech in America in an age when fascism has taken over Europe. He loses, of course, and the experience knocks him on his ass because, he explains to his fellow performers, he thought he was “one of them” – that he’d get the ear of fellow Republicans. Even Lane can’t make these shifts remotely plausible.

That dago/Chinaman line is tailor-made for contemporary audiences to scoff at and then pat themselves on the back for their liberal attitudes. Beane wants it both ways: he means us to laugh knowingly at Chauncey’s one-liner about a Negro playing blackface, but we’re also supposed to think that the nance is his only way of asserting his sexual identity. I love Nathan Lane, but I don’t want to see him play melodrama, and Chauncey’s moments of high emotion – the way he dissolves during the drag sketch, and the truly awful final scene where, alone on stage after the rest of the troupe has moved on to New Jersey, where the laws are more lenient, he presses his head against the ghost lamp and reprises the end of “Hi, Simply Hi” – are melodrama. Ned says goodbye to Chauncey at the Horn & Hardart where they first met and leans over to give him a farewell kiss; he disappears before the cop who bears down on Chauncey can catch him, and Chauncey won’t give him up when he’s arrested, so Ross punishes him by taking away his right to perform outside the state. That’s why he’s left behind at the end. This act of selfless generosity by a gay man on behalf of the only man he’s ever truly loved is yet another stance, plus it gives Lane a chance to play Camille. I didn’t buy it on either level.

The cast of The Assembled Parties, at the The Manhattan Theatre Club (All photos by Joan Marcus)

The Manhattan Theatre Club production of The Assembled Parties, another new Richard Greenberg play (it overlapped briefly on Broadway with his Breakfast at Tiffany’s), is a self-conscious high comedy set in a fourteen-room apartment on Central Park West in 1980 and 2000. The apartment, ingeniously designed by Santo Loquasto for the revolve of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is an anachronism. Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), the young house guest who has been invited for Christmas by the family of his Princeton roommate, Scotty (Jake Silbermann), tells his mother over the phone that it’s the kind of place you’d expect to see in one of those comedies with “breezy dialogue” that she likes so much. (Jeff is a Jew from a far more modest socioeconomic background, and he quarrels with his mother, who is puzzled by Scotty’s family, assimilated Jews who celebrate Christmas.) Greenberg is using the setting and the genre to comment on Scotty’s mother Julie (Jessica Hecht), a socialite who is so gracious and elegant and charismatic that Jeff is dazzled by her – and who is also an anachronism. Greenberg has written stylized dialogue for her that’s sort of but not quite like the dialogue John Guare wrote for Ouisa and Flan Kittredge, the aristocratic couple at the center of his high comedy, Six Degrees of Separation. Guare drew on the form to comment on both the seductiveness (for outsiders) and the emptiness of the Manhattan aristocracy, a late-twentieth-century version of the ones Philip Barry built Holiday and The Philadelphia Story around. But I’m not sure exactly what we’re supposed to make of Greenberg’s play or of the character of Julie, whose lines sound like they’d read as caustic on the page but which Hecht, a superb technician, makes into charming mini-numbers, stretching out her words languorously and finding the musicality in her natural nasality. When Julie was a girl, her father left her mother, who went on to a career as a dress designer. (The superb costume designer Jane Greenwood has Hecht show up in one of them for Christmas 2000, a bronze cocktail dress that would be a conversation piece at any party.) So her mother reinvented herself and Julie is the second-generation version of this reinvention, but if anyone other than Hecht played her I’m not sure you’d believe her – or those lines – for a moment.

Jessica Hecht and Judith Light in The Assembled Parties
We don’t get Julie’s back story until the second act, by which time she has lost both her husband Ben (Jonathan Walker) and Scotty, who dies of AIDS between the acts from a tainted blood transfusion. Greenberg plays the various dramas in which the characters participate against the trappings of the genre, though we hardly need to be told that real life isn’t a high comedy. In act one Scotty, whose father expects great things of him, has deferred Harvard Law and is having an identity crisis; he thinks he might want to be a high school English teacher. Ben’s sister Faye (Judith Light, who gives a lovely performance) is worried about her daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld), an oddball and a mystery to her mother. Faye’s husband Mort (Mark Blum, a fine character actor who doesn’t get enough to do here) has discovered that Ben cheated on Julie and is blackmailing him in order to get a ruby necklace, a family heirloom that Ben and Faye’s formidable, intractable mother gave Julie. (We learn the rest of the tale of the necklace in act two. But none of the characters gets the whole story, which reveals a marital devotion on the part of the by-now-deceased Mort that’s the sweetest thread in the play.) Scotty’s much younger brother Tim (also played by Silbermann), in his twenties in act two, never finished college and is hiding his girl friend’s pregnancy from his mother, from whom he has grown increasingly estranged. Ben avoided going to prison for white-collar crime by paying an enormous penalty that depleted the family coffers, but Julie has no idea that she’s ending her life on the verge of bankruptcy – though in other ways Greenberg has written her as clear-eyed and canny.

Shamos manages the age range of his character deftly, and he and especially Hecht and Light keep the play afloat. I didn’t care much for Walker, and Silbermann is inauthentic as Scotty and even moreso as Tim. But then, Greenberg doesn’t seem to like either of Silbermann’s characters very much. The Assembled Parties is yet another play containing vacuous twenty-somethings you want to bop over the head for saying things like “Rwanda was boring yet somehow ennobling” (Scotty, reporting on a recent trip to Jeff) and “the Holocaust was the most sentimental event of the twentieth century” (Scotty’s offstage girl friend, quoted by Jeff). This isn’t my favorite current trend in the American theatre.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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