"Niagara Falls! Slowly I turned..." God knows who wrote that, maybe someone like the early W.C. Fields.
"Slowly I turned..." is the beginning of one of the many nonsense sketches performed constantly in burlesque in the early '30s in theaters where low turns were confined to vulgar plays on words. In burlesque, there were always campy performances offering smart-alecky jibes ridiculing gays and girls daring to take their clothes off for bumps and grinds.
"The Nance," a play that deals with sexual identity, may be one of the saddest dramas ever written, with bitter, sardonic laughter and cynicism dominating. It is a work by Douglas Carter Beane and concerns 1937 New York, when Fiorello LaGuardia was beginning to dominate for a three-term reign as mayor and Europe was heading for fascist turmoil. (Mr. Beane also wrote one of my favorites, "The Little Dog Laughed.")
"The Nance" plunges right into puritan America's concern with male homosexuality and the nation's hatred and punishment of a segment of its population that would dominate right up through and including the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
The late intellectual Susan Sontag would be right at home at "The Nance." The play includes most of what passed and came to be called "camp," which relied heavily on the perpetuation of gay stereotypes. Sontag wrote a slick essay on this underground kind of humor, which has become a bitter and largely forgotten "art form" already.
The role gay life plays in this raw and brutal "comedy" has to be explained. So we see a closeted gay man, Chauncey Miles, played by Mr. Lane, performing in burlesque as an effeminate gay man, or what's known as a Nance, alongside a "straight" man, Charlie, played by solid actor Geoffrey Allen Murphy. Lane camps it up onstage uttering double entendres about sex, but he can't be allowed to perform as a gay man in real life, as Murphy keeps cautioning him. In other words, he is gay privately but he's supposed to perform as if he isn't. His burlesque co-stars and friends are a chorus line of old, getting older, and new girls -- Jenni Barber, Andrea Burns and the over-the-top Cady Huffman as the peerless giant. They are Nathan's "stripper" chorus. There are other back stagers who accept Nathan's private life and could care less. The reason his sex life is of so much concern in the play is because the Republican mayor, LaGuardia, has vowed to wipe out burlesque theaters, which he maintains offend his puritanical sensibilities, and goes about doing this by persecuting gays.
So, Lane plays the "Nance" onstage and is a tormented gay man ever avoiding the brutal police in Manhattan. We open on a fabulous set created by John Lee Beatty, which harkens back to the Horn and Hardart Automats. Right up front, Nathan's character tells us how concerned he is with "politics." He is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, but ever hopeful that LaGuardia will put things right and he'll be allowed to go on playing a gay man while being one. (The word gay is never mentioned in this play. And while the world drifted toward World War II and New York churches and do-gooders exerted their will over "show business," Actors Equity stood silent while protestors tried to organize in vain. (Ms. Huffman, memorable from "The Will Rogers Follies," is the lead fighter who talks about weird things like Social Security and is accused by Lane of being "a communist!")
Actor Jonny Orsini (Ned) is the attractive young man Chauncey Miles picks up in the automat and he is divine. Such an open, goodhearted guy who falls for the "Nance's" comic defiance and certainty that he will be rejected. Orsini goes on to be central to the plot as he turns into a burlesque actor himself. The part where he learns to perform the Frankenstein monster in one of the burlesque sketches is priceless. I predict a grand career ahead for this vital young actor.
Audiences just adore Nathan Lane and he has played tragic characters before. (He was fantastic in "Waiting for Godot.") He has been in theater hearts since before he helped Mel Brooks' "The Producers" become the top musical of our times. He can sing, act, put on drag, take it off, and break your heart with his inner mysteries and sweetness. I just love this guy! I am really not up to describing his performance here. It seemed almost too deep and too damaging.
I remember a lot about the '30s in America, especially in its then narrow-minded heartland. After all, I had been born in Texas in 1923. So I had a feel for the era. When I came to New York in 1949, four years after World War II ended, I met a lot of former burlesque masters -- Joey Faye, Jack Albertson, etc. -- and when I visited Chicago in the '50s, we used to go to see what was left of burlesque. This was a later, more refined burlesque, glamorized by Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr and the like. I was constantly meeting old actors who wisecracked lines like "slowly I turned," expecting you to know what they were talking about. So "The Nance" went right to my memories of the aftermath.
"The Nance" is not, of course, mainly about burlesque and its vulgar excesses. It is about heartbreak and civilized man's inhumanity to man, still going on here and there all over the world. But were gays fighting for their rights back then, or fighting to survive?
One of my favorite directors, Jack O'Brien, directs "The Nance" and I find him peerless. Although you are probably not meant to have a good time at this show, if you open your head and heart to recent history, you will, from time to time, fall out of your chair laughing. Nathan Lane, Jack O'Brien and Cady Huffman just can't resist affecting you. There is plenty in the play's dialogue to startle, shock and blow you away, especially in our current politically correct environment. People say things onstage that we seldom hear in overly sensitive New York. But then the theater exists to dare and to make us rethink and shock us into horror at our past sins.
"The Nance" is unusual. It is so "ancient" in its philosophies we are shocked to be forced to remember "the way it was." I think it was a bold, brave step to find and present such a play. After all, Mayor LaGuardia did so many good things and is such a hero in New York. Sad to realize that he turned his back on what he considered a sub-species of humanity.
Oh, you might wonder -- does "The Nance" concern itself with lesbians? Such a thing isn't even mentioned; at the time, it was beyond comment or belief. Remember the British judge's question -- "Whatever could women do together?" Once again, in history, it seems women aren't worth bothering about when it comes to their sex lives. In this case, it's the men who suffer for being themselves.
I hate to dub "The Nance" as a cautionary tale but all history is cautionary. And not so splendid either, as we often prefer to think. The fact that Nathan Lane shows us a man who, in the end, is left with his own rigid conditioning (to hide, to lie, to subvert, to prefer the thrill to the real) is amply displayed by an actor at his best. What a guy!
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)