Nathan Lane has always been a walking, talking (singing, dancing, joking, dazzling) embodiment of both comedy and tragedy masks. Unless one has followed his career from the serious start, however, it can be easy to pigeonhole him as that funny little Tony-winning icon with the trumpet-voice and intimations of a mean streak.
So even when material lets him down, which it finally does in "The Nance," Douglas Carter Beane's splendidly ambitious but psychologically superficial tragicomedy, it's thrilling to watch Lane bond with a character who demands the full attention of so many gifted layers of him.
Given the untapped gay history in its fascinating subject, the play and the Lincoln Center Theater's loving and meticulous production promised to be both important and entertaining. Lane is Chauncey, who plays a "nance," the stereotype gay flounce, also called the "pansy part," persecuted by the city in the last days of New York '30s burlesque. The twist here is that nances were almost always played by straight men and Chauncey most definitely is not one.
The first scene is riveting. Chauncey sits at a table in a downtown automat famous, as he puts it, as a "place where the boys meet the boys" in an especially oppressive time. Gestures between customers are codes. Everyone is wary of undercover cops. Chauncey hooks up with Ned (the appealing Jonny Orsini), a hungry, handsome, small-town man fleeing a wife.
The turntable under John Lee Beatty's ingenious set makes a turn and, bam, we're watching Chauncey transformed with exaggerated swishing and double entendres in a burlesque sketch -- complete with live offstage band. We meet the straight comic co-star (wonderfully played by longtime Lane co-star Lewis J. Stadlen) and the three chickies -- including the oldest dame, played like a sweet amazon by Cady Huffman (Ulla to Lane's Max in "The Producers").
And there we have it. We know the problem and we know the characters. Although many dramatic scenes and burlesque skits follow, we don't really get to know much else.
Jack O'Brien, a master of both knotty Tom Stoppard plays and musical-comedy hits, seems the perfect director to get into the marrow of the wisecracking characters and the hilarity, or at least poignancy, of the routines. But the low-comedy burlesque, recreated in part from archival footage, gets redundant and, despite Ann Roth's priceless costumes, starts feeling like filler in place of emotional digging.
So much is unexplored here. Is Chauncey a Republican just so Beane can make gay-Republican jokes? Does Beane make the hunky young Ned insist on monogamy just to make a contemporary case for commitment? Most of all, how does Chauncey avoid the self-loathing of his parodies? When arrested, he makes an outrageously brave courthouse speech. Even Lane, at the top of his game here, can't make us believe that one.
If you go
WHAT "The Nance"
WHERE Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.
INFO $37-$132; 212-239-6200; lct.org.
BOTTOM LINE Splendid Lane and production, superficial play