When people ask me how the theater season is going, I can, for once, be honestly upbeat. One great musical, Matilda, and several very good off-Broadway plays, among them Amy Herzog’s Belleville and Annie Baker’s oddly riveting three-hour slice of cinema-house verite, The Flick — that’s plenty to get excited about. Still, there is one glaring hole that has become endemic to the New York theater scene: the lack of any good straight plays on Broadway.
The difficulties faced by non-musicals on Broadway are built into the system. For a play to have a viable chance of success with mainstream audiences, it generally needs one of three things. The first is a bankable star — usually starring in something closer to an actor’s vehicle than a full-bodied play. Hence this season’s Lucky Guy, with Tom Hanks as New York newspaper columnist Mike McAlary, and the upcoming I’ll Eat You Last, a one-woman show with Bette Midler playing the late Hollywood talent agent Sue Mengers.
In lieu of a star, you must have laughs. Exhibit A this season is Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, the unaccountably popular new comedy by Christopher Durang. I was left totally cold by the relentless stream of one-liners and frantic overacting in Durang’s amped-up family comedy, with strains (very strained) of Chekhov. But audiences are roaring, critics are swooning, and, given the typically weak competition, the play probably has the inside track for top Tony awards.
The third kind of play that can occasionally make it on Broadway is one geared to a reliable theatergoing constituency. Thus, we have Richard Greenberg’s new play Assembled Parties, a scattered and unconvincing comedy-drama about an Upper West Side Jewish family, aimed squarely at those Upper West Side Jewish theatergoers (and their relatives in Westchester County) who used to congregate at Neil Simon comedies.
And then there is Douglas Carter Beane’s new play The Nance.
Actually, The Nance has all three things going for it. Set in 1930s New York City, it revolves around a gay stage performer who plays a mincing gay caricature— a “nance” — in burlesque. His onstage comedy, mostly leering, rapid-fire dialogues with a straight partner (Lewis J. Stadlen), provide the laughs. His offstage drama, wrestling with life as a gay man in a closeted era, seems obviously tailored for the gay constituency that makes up a large share of the Broadway audience. And it has a big star: Nathan Lane.
The Nance, directed by Jack O’Brien, has its attractions. The opening scene in an automat, where the burlesque performer, Chauncey Miles, picks up a naïve young newcomer to the city (Jonny Orsini), sets the period, and the shadowy gay subculture of the times, quite well. And Beane has done his research on an all-but-forgotten chapter of show business. But the mixture of showbiz, social comment and soap opera rings manipulative and false.
The central irony is as obvious as a pratfall. While Chauncey must hide his homosexuality in real life, he makes a living by playing a demeaning stereotype of himself onstage. Yet the play tries to have it both ways. After asking us to shake our heads in dismay at the shameful situation, it wants us to rise up in anger when the authorities try to shut down the “obscene” show. Self-hatred isn’t all that bad, I guess — at least it’s a living.
To hammer home the injustice being done to Chauncey, Beane makes him, implausibly, a conservative Republican. The bawdy double-entendres in his stage act, meanwhile, seem more an expression of patronizing 2013 sensibilities than actual 1930s burlesque. Nor could I quite buy that the good-looking young stud who comes to live with Chauncey (and gets the usual gratuitous nude scene) is pushing for a committed relationship, while Chauncey, the lonely, middle-aged sad sack, is the one kicking him out the door.
Lane, to be sure, is effective in a role that gives him an ideal showcase for his siren-voiced comedic skills and sad-clown sincerity. No question, he deserves to be on Broadway. But the play doesn’t.