The first applause at “The Nance” is for the opening scene in an Automat surely inspired by Edward Hopper.
In the dingy evening light, a few men are scattered among deserted tables. A grid of tiny doors beckons with sandwiches, pie and other Horn & Hardart delicacies.
Occasionally peering out from behind a copy of Variety is an impeccably dressed man of a certain age and mien.
Nathan Lane’s Chauncey Miles is keen to the comings and goings. He watches as Ned, an attractive, hungry-looking boy arrives, furtively fills a used mug with hot water, pours in some ketchup and begins drinking.
“I daresay the finest dish here at the Automat is the tomato soup,” Chauncey remarks, being careful not to address the young man directly. “People come from miles around for it.”
Chauncey offers Ned (Jonny Orsini) half a sandwich and an invitation to meet nearby in less public surroundings.
In those few moments we’ve watched Lane’s drawbridge eyebrows rise and fall in a semaphore of reactions: bemusement, compassion, fear and confidentiality.
Those animated caterpillars are marvels of communication and serve Chauncy well as the outrageously swishy second banana in a burlesque show.
He works at the Irving Place Theatre, an actual institution near Gramercy Park that flourished in the 1930s until Mayor LaGuardia began cracking down on the seamier side of show business before opening the 1939 World’s Fair.
Douglas Carter Beane’s play is a tribute to the gay performers who survived by acting out the straight world’s most stereotyped fantasies of “nancy boy” behavior.
Chauncy’s signature line is a flamboyant “Hi! Simply, hi!” and his currency is the double entendre: As he points out to a judge after the theater has been raided, the dirtiness is in the mind of the beholder.
There are moments when “The Nance” feels too contemporary, though the play resists the snide humor afflicting Beane’s adaptation of “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” which opened earlier this season.
But it’s also a sympathetic love story about one damaged man’s inability to feel deserving of more than anonymous sex. When the initially vacant Ned (played with great appeal by Orsini) moves in, he asks Chauncy to be monogamous. But that’s an impossible request, given the depth of the older man’s self- loathing.
Lane, in his best performance since “The Producers,” brings considerable heart to Chauncey’s ambiguities (which include the political: he’s a staunch if unlikely Republican). He’s surrounded by a superb ensemble that includes Lewis J. Stadlen’s stern top banana and Cady Huffman as the first among equals in a trio of women playing put-upon nurses, gold-diggers and fan dancers.
Jack O’Brien has directed with his usual sensitivity, never allowing the play to devolve into a camp fest.
But I’m happy to return to John Lee Beatty’s set designs, which include the Irving Place stage and Chauncey’s apartment, a memorabilia-stuffed Hell’s Kitchen grotto, all atmospherically lit by Japhy Weideman.
The great costumer Ann Roth has, as usual, established the period with a flawless eye both for the vaudeville routines and the actors’ civilian clothes. The designers deserved that anticipatory applause and more.
At the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212- 239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: ***1/2
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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