‘The Nance’ goes offstage to screen

A filmed presentation of Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “The Nance,” Douglas Carter Beane’s comic melodrama, will be screened at the Ritz Five Theatre at 7 p. m. July 16 and 11 a.m. July 20.

The Tony Award-winning show concerns the fictional Chauncey Miles (Nathan Lane), a queer burlesque performer in the 1930s who picks up a penniless young man, Ned (Johnny Orsini), takes him home and perhaps falls in love with him.

Meanwhile, at the theater, the flamboyant Chauncey is under pressure to tone down his act because of raids for indecent behavior. This is an era where doing drag is acceptable because it is “masquerade” — but being openly gay is taboo.

Lane excels in the tailor-made title role, displaying great comic timing in the vaudeville skits that alternate with the more serious dramatic scenes, in which Chauncey makes political and romantic statements in an effort to live honestly in an age where such behavior is frowned upon.

Author Douglas Carter Beane does a fine job walking the tightrope between comedy and pathos as Chauncey’s story is told. He spoke by phone with PGN about “The Nance.”

PGN: Before we discuss your play, can you offer your thoughts on this trend to film theater? DCB: There are pluses and minuses. When I first started watching theater in a movie theater, they were so rudimentary and basic. And you can never have a live experience. But with “The Nance,” they did a spectacular job — you saw the sweat on Nathan’s brow and the use of close-ups, for me, was thrilling and exciting. They did cut-away shots of people reacting, which you could never have at the theater. It’s as close as you can get.

PGN: The show really captures the social, political and cultural attitudes of the era. Can you talk about what prompted you/why you wanted to write “The Nance”? DCB: I see where we are now and I see us already forgetting where we’ve been. It’s important for us to know — straight, gay and bi-curious — where we were all coming from, what we are wired to react to and why we behave the way we do. It has been a constant conversation since 1977 and Anita Bryant. Look how we’ve evolved! I wanted everyone to take a moment to think about how we talked about ourselves and acted.

PGN: What research did you do on the burlesque acts and period? DCB: I started writing this as a project doing a burlesque night. I saw the word “nance” and phrase “nance action in the balcony.” A nance was a campy act to be liked and, like commedia dell’arte, there was a structure to every sketch and a swirl of jokes. I would ask older men who knew burlesque and they would have the routines memorized. One third I read, one third I heard and one third I made up in the style. I made up the Hortense monologue, but that’s a standard guy-in-drag routine that’s been around since the 1920s. The name of the “Niagara Falls” sketch is called “The Stranger with the Kind Face” with the gay pickup line, “I’ll meet you around the corner in a half-an-hour.” The line comments on the action.

PGN: What can you say about the fabulous music in the show? DCB: The actual music was done by Glen Kelly, and it was spectacular. He just did “Bullets Over Broadway.” This is what he does. He knows this world inside-out. I would write a draft of the lyric, trying to imitate Lorenz Hart or Buddy DeSylva. We ended up getting more pointed — the song “Everybody’s Looking for Love.” He would write a melody and I would put words to it.

PGN: Like your show “The Little Dog Laughed” about a closeted gay actor, “The Nance” is told to keep his private life secret. Why does this topic interest you so much that you return to investigating it? DCB: It’s not the same story. There were 70 people in the George W. Bush administration who were closeted. That’s a lot of people voting against their own interests. Ken Mehlman constructed the anti-homo strategy. I’m fascinated, even now, with the shift for gay marriage. Everyone is for it, except born-again Christians who kick their dogs. But closeted gay men, or gay men who are Republicans, change the conversation or are taught to hate themselves, and that manifests itself politically.

PGN: Yes, Chauncey is self-loathing, but Ned, his lover, is full of self-worth. DCB: I think Ned is a good guy, he’s a sponge, but Chauncey is a deep, dark, fascinating person. A lot of “bachelors of the theater” cannot and do not choose to have relationships. Reality is that you don’t love yourself enough to love other people.

PGN: Did you write the show with Nathan Lane in mind, and how did you work with him on the role? DCB: I did write it with Nathan in mind. I’ve known him for 10 years now. I sent it to him and he really clicked with it and was a real force in getting this made. In terms of working with him, it was a conversation. He’d want to cut something or I’d argue for him not to do some things. He’d just done “The Iceman Cometh” and then did “Modern Family,” so his life was that — shifting from, Did this man murder his wife? into Pepper.

PGN: The audience acts as an interactive element in the show; the performers are playing to them in the burlesque scenes, but also at them at the same time. This works equally well on film. Can you discuss incorporating the audience into the play? DCB: I knew that I wanted a show that could be as personal, as vulnerable, as truthful and as showy as I could make it. One that would allow the audience to be in the room hearing and getting jokes. Jack [O’Brien, the director] would bring the lights up during certain scenes, so I wrote lines where Chauncey could comment on the rococo of the theater, or a woman in a box seat, and then go into some personal and very conversational scenes. I love the juxtaposing of that, and how they both inform each other. He’ll say a line in a joke, then the line is repeated in the next scene. Every sketch corresponds with what happens in another scene.

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