Miles is in the show business. He brings down the house of the Lyceum Theater every night during the Depression with his portrayal of a very nellie nance. Miles is schooled in one-liners off-stage (being an actor eating a ham sandwich makes him a cannibal, he says) and double entendres on-stage. He is a Republican who hates FDR and Commies. He supports Mayor LaGuardia, who is trying to clean up Broadway in time for the November elections. Oh, the irony. Miles wields sarcasm to cover his feelings. He has spent his life covering up, lying, pretending — and not just because he is an actor but because he is a gay actor pretending, but not very successfully, to be a straight actor in a stereotype.
Into his world comes a sweet man named Ned. They meet in Act One at Horn & Hardart, notorious for hook-ups of the boy variety. Chauncey sits reading Variety, hoping for just what Ned offers, a handsome young man looking for a night of love. But what Ned offers is a life of love, and Chauncey isn’t sure he can handle happiness.
The nance is played by award-winning actor Nathan Lane as if he’s channeling his brothers from burlesque. The nance on stage often breaks through the fourth wall to wink at the laughers in the front row, but as Chauncey Miles, Lane remains steady and sad. Lane, seen also in “Modern Family,” is ably supported by Johnny Orsini as the handsome, naive Ned, and by Lewis J. Stadlen as the impresario. The girls are played by Jenni Barber, Andrea Burns, and Cady Huffman — although their words are sometimes lost within their nasal, Brooklyn accents. The play works so well on John Lee Beatty’s revolving stage, now a basement apartment and now a proscenium stage or an automat or a courtroom.
Beane’s script nods to history with references to the Thirties but does not have to work hard to make the story modern in its references to discrimination and terrorizing by hypocrites in government. Jack O’Brien’s direction is fluid with the company moving at appropriate pacing.
Getting to see “The Nance” without going to Lincoln Cener Theater in New York City is a welcome offering of a filmed stage play. The film plays at the Tivoli Theatre in the Loop on Wed. night July 16 at 7 p.m. and on Sunday July 20 at noon.