"Niagara Falls????!!!!!!... slowly he turned..." God knows who wrote that, maybe someone like the early W. C. Fields.
This is the beginning of one of the many nonsense sketches performed constantly in American burlesque during the 1930s, in a theatre where low turns were confined to vulgar plays on words. There were always in burlesque -- campy performances offering smark-alecky for gays to be ridiculed and girls daring to take a lot of clothes off for bumps and grinds.
I doubt if even the mature audience at the great Nathan Lane's opening night of "The Nance" had many old enough to remember such corny hoary joke turns. Some of these are quite funny and downbeat humor predominates. (This was burlesque and it went on to live in what followed for show business -- vaudeville -- which was a bit less vulgar and more family-oriented.)
• "The Nance" 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 Fiorella La Guardia was beginning to dominate for a three-term reign and Europe was heading for Fascist turmoil. (Mr. Beane also one of my favorites, "The Little Dog Laughed.")
The play plunges right into puritan America's concern with male homosexuality and the nation's hatred and punishment of a segment of its people that would dominate right up through and including the Stonewall Riots in 1969. (After that epic battle, gays were partially liberated.)
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," or the nick-naming of characteristics of male gay life, Sontag wrote a slick essay on this underground kind of humor. It has become a bitter and largely forgotten "art form" already.
The role gay life plays in this raw brutal "comedy" has to be explained. So we see Mr. Lane performing in burlesque with a "straight" man, solid actor Geoffrey Allen Murphy. Lane camps it up onstage uttering double entendres that are homosexual, but he can't be allowed to perform as a gay in real life, as Murphy keeps cautioning him. In other words, he is gay privately but supposed to perform as if, in real life, 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 backstagers who accept Nathan's private life and could care less. The reason his sex life is of so much concern is because the GOP Mayor LaGuardia, who leans to the left for FDR's programs, has sworn eternal vigilance vs. burlesque theaters that offend his puritanical sensibilities. And the religious are agitating against gay men as well.
• So, Lane plays the "Nance" in burlesque onstage and is a tormented gay ever avoiding the brutal police in Manhattan. We open on a fabulous set, harking back to the Horn & Hardart Automats. In continuous neat staging by John Lee Beatty this drama proceeds through public and private lives. Right up front, Nathan 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 while being one. (The word gay is never mentioned in this play of its time, 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 and protestors tried to organize in vain. (Ms. Huffman, memorable from "The Will Rogers Follies," is the leader -- fighter who talks about weird things like Social Security and is accused by Lane of being "a Communist!")
Actor Jonny Orsini is the attractive young man picked up in the Automat by Nathan, and he is divine. Such an open, good-hearted guy who falls for the "Nance's" comic defiance and certainty that he (Nathan) 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" for instance. 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 he turned" they expected 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? They were just fighting to survive.
One of my favorite directors in all the world, Jack O'Brien, has directed "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 our current politically correct America to make you startled, shocked and blown away by the dialogue here. People are saying things onstage that we seldom hear in overly-sensitive New York! But then, the theater exists to dare and to make us re-think 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 history. 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 lesbian behavior? Such a thing isn't even mentioned; it is beyond comment or belief. Remember the British judge's question -- "What ever could women do together?" Once again, in history, women aren't worth bothering about when it comes to their sex lives. In this case, it's the men who suffer, obviously, 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 always 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 thing) is amply displayed by star-actor at his best. What a guy!