Lyceum Theatre, New York
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“One of the most exciting things that a well-produced play can do” is make a forgotten corner of the past come alive, said Terry Teachout in The Wall Street Journal. That’s just what playwright Douglas Carter Beane has done with this “dead-serious comedy” about a 1930s burlesque comedian who plays outrageous gay stereotypes onstage yet hides his own homosexuality out of fear and self-loathing. In previous works, Beane has too often indulged in campy fluff, but here he’s “found a way to use the campiness that is his primary theatrical color to relevant and moving effect.” It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Nathan Lane fills the title role. Lane “gives the kind of richly realized performance of which playwrights dream.”
Beane had Lane in mind when he wrote the role, and “you can understand why,” said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. The actor’s puckishness makes it easy to forget his capacity for “a brooding dramatic intelligence.” He’s ideal as the conflicted Chauncey Miles, who cracks innuendo-laden jokes onstage and has clandestine one-night stands afterward. Alas, “even Mr. Lane can’t reconcile all the disparities Mr. Beane’s script asks him to weave together.” Somehow he’s supposed to be both a censorship-defying hero and a defender of the status quo who’s too self-hating to accept the love of a younger paramour.
Yet so what if Beane’s script fails to locate “the ideal balance between its delirious low comedy and pathos”? said David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter. Chauncey and his fellow performers eventually run afoul of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who orders the shuttering of New York’s burlesque houses and the arrests of suspected homosexuals. Chauncey himself is beaten by a police vice squad. But returning to the stage for a part that requires him to dress in drag as an aging prostitute, Chauncey delivers a confessional soliloquy that’s “a gorgeously melancholy bit of double-edged comedy.” Beane “might have bitten off more than he can chew,” but that doesn’t mean his show isn’t deeply affecting.
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