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First Nighter: Nathan Lane First-Rate, as Usual, in Douglas Carter Beane's New Play, The Nance

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Plays conjuring Manhattan in the 1930s often take on the look of a live-action Edward Hopper painting. Not a bad thing. Actually, the effect is stunning when the curtain rises on The Nance, and what's revealed is the Hopper-like replica of a Horn & Hardart restaurant with its bank of small windows (ubiquitous John Lee Beatty is the set designer) and a few men sporting fedoras at separate tables.

The one whose face has been hidden lowers the paper he's reading and turns out to be Nathan Lane. He's Chauncey Miles, the nance of the title, who shortly explains to young, new-to-the-city Ned (Jonny Orsini) that the downtown branch of the famous Philadelphia-created automats they're in is a gay pick-up spot where patrons must be circumspect since raids (very much pre-Stonewall) are common.

Their initial exchange is the start of a love affair that audiences might assume will be the focus of Douglas Carter Beane's Lincoln Center production at the Lyceum. That's if they don't already suspect that, given the burden of Lane's character, the drama's emphasis will be on Miles's dangerous life as a homosexual courting laughs in the guise of a swishy burlesque figure.

Sure enough, once Ned and Mile s- -despite his unyielding compulsion to seek anonymous sex -- set up light house-keeping, the attention shifts to the now-demolished but once popular Irving Place Theatre in which Miles performs with sidekick Efram (Lewis J. Stadlen, Lane's frequent sidekick over the years). They're supported in their routines by meet-ya-round-the-corner-in-a-half-an-hour stripper-comediennes Sylvie (Cady Huffman, Lane's Producers supporting player Ulla), Carmen (Andrea Burns) and Joan (Jenni Barber).

Jarringly shifting gears, Beane now concerns himself with society's aggressive and intolerant pursuit of homosexual men during the period. Since not only cruising zones like the Greenwich Village Horn & Hardart were at risk for police action but burlesque houses were as well, Miles -- a fictional character Beane has dreamed up based on real-life entertainers -- is a perfect target. He's all the more vulnerable because of his convictions that, like Alban in La Cage Aux Folles, he is what he is and won't give in to the potential perils of persecution.

Since Miles remains inflexible, he eventually taunts an official he knows is in the audience one night. He does so rather than follow Efram's advice to switch for that performance into comic-Italian mode. His provocative stand gets him arrested and seated before a judge's bench where he gives an effective, though not entirely exonerating, speech about the use of language. He describes his deployment of double entendres to point out that what he's doing for a living isn't in any form incriminating.

All would be fine with Beane's intentions were he more brutal in his attack on repressive behavior in the past -- and by implication in many quarters today -- but though he shows and tells spectators a good deal about Miles, he hasn't completely figured who Miles really is.

For instance, he has Miles declare more than once his loyalty to the Republican Party. He never explains why, however -- something he certainly needs to do in the context. Neither does he probe why Miles insists on playing the nance when he knows he's not only putting himself at risk but that he's endangering his colleagues as well. Where is the scene, an observer might ask, during which Efram as his best friend and colleague confronts him with his decision? Or if not Efram, someone else.

Furthermore, whatever happened to life with Ned -- other than the young fellow's becoming a neophyte performer at the burlesque house? The answer to that question is offered towards the end of Beane's script, where he abruptly goes back without much ado to the co-habiting same-sex couple and their threatened future.

As if he's thinking The Nance, which is directed by Jack O'Brien with his usual firm hand, could be turned into a Fred Ebb-John Kander-type musical -- or pass for one in its current state -- Beane inserts several burlesque-influenced numbers between the scenes. Sometimes they seem to be commenting obliquely but pointedly on the action. Sometimes, they don't seem to be.

But as played by Lane and Stadlen, they're consistently rib-tickling. They're certainly an informative survey of burlesque jokes and situations that audiences perhaps not old enough to recall burlesque but perhaps able to pull up images of Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater will recognize. Appearing in skits with the pair or without then, Huffman, Burns and Barber vivaciously go about their comically provocative business. The choreographer for them all is clever Joey Pizzi, and the costumer with the sense of humor and sense of period is Ann Roth..

But if Beane's work is a character study calling for further study on the author's part (he's certainly accomplished more here than he does in his current Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella) libretto), Lane's three-dimensional portrait of Chauncey Miles -- named after George Chauncey, whose 1994 Gay New York Beane consulted for background info -- is never a let-down.

Possibly Broadway's one legitimate box-office name (in contrast to movie stars sojourning on the fabled turf), Lane has played versions of Chauncey Miles before. (That's to say, he himself is something of a stage nance.) As he's previously demonstrated, he has the uncanny ability to make audiences laugh while tugging at their heartstrings -- the gift indicating more than a spark of genius.

His portly physique and his use of it contribute to his noteworthy effects. (Jackie Gleason, anyone? Zero Mostel?) His voice is also a significant factor. But it's really the round face that does it. His thin-lipped mouth turns up, his eyes turn down and his eyebrows look as if they're about to slide off. The combo imbues him with a sophisticated sadness that suggests he's aware of something about life that is both comical and so fathomlessly disillusioned that anything approaching happiness is thoroughly out of the question.

Lane's stance, his expresssion at the final curtain -- the cause of the despair won't be revealed here -- may not be earned by Beane's play, but at that moment the actor beautifully compensates for anything and everything that up until then might have been missing.