BY CHRISTOPHER MURRAY | The playwright and screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane looooooves Keen’s Steakhouse, that relic of old New York on West 36th Street in Midtown. Founded as a gentlemen’s smoking club when the theater district was just migrating Squares up from Union to Herald, but not yet Times, Beane is right at home at Keen’s, nestled in with walls covered by yellowing stage bills featuring titans of past theatrical triumphs — as well as a tasty Maker’s Mark Old Fashioned. Yup, he’s a homo. When I tell him I used to work as a waitron there back in the day, but that we all called it not Keen’s Chop House, but Queen’s Flop House, he barks with pleasure.
Keen’s and Beane may sound like an old vaudeville duo, but it seemed an appropriate place to meet the playwright and screenwriter of “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” — which must be acknowledged as the best movie title of the past 50 years — the night after the opening of his new play, “The Nance,” starring that clarion-voiced kleptomaniac of the spotlight Nathan Lane.
Lane is up for a Tony on June 9 for Best Actor as is Beane himself for Best Book of a Musical for his smart, sassy, and soulful new adaptation of “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella." Not one, but two new shows opening on Broadway in as many months must be some sort of gay Olympic record. Figure Skating, Greco-Roman Wrestling, and the Double Broadway Freestyle.
And while both “Cinderella” and “The Nance” are as unabashedly gay as our solicitous black-vested server at Keen’s, they couldn’t be more different in tone. Still, their subject matter is not really so different — both explore the sometimes difficult complexities of identity in a world that prefers its pigeonholes.
“The Nance” tells the based-on-historical-circumstance story of Chauncey Miles, a vaudeville comedian who specializes in broad gay stereotype and runs afoul of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s campaign against racy burlesque in the lead-up to the 1939 World’s Fair. Sound familiar? Lane mauls the scenery with gusto and achingly embodies the tortuous self-sabotage of a man divided against himself, enraged at society’s homophobia but eaten up with self-loathing. A superb cast including veterans Cady Huffman and Lewis J. Stadlen, nail both the burlesque style of ham and swish, but also fill in the sympathetic community that can’t save Chauncey from the daggers pointed at the heart of the era’s furtive homosexual life.
Many gay men seeing “The Nance” — the run of which has been extended to August 11 at the jewel box Lyceum Theatre (telecharge.com) — would likely aver that such sordid self-abnegation is a thing of the past, what with gay marriage and the brave new world of our out, loud, and proud lives. Beane, however, chose to tell this story out of his awareness of the ways in which many of us still struggle with self-acceptance.
For his part, Beane recounts a childhood of great love and encouragement that nonetheless was complicated by fears of bullies. He also treasures the salvation provided by an early immersion in the oasis of the theater. The support of his family and his theatrical community, he says, enabled him to surmount some of the pitfalls of our kind and establish a supportive, long-term relationship with his husband, composer Lewis Flinn, with whom he collaborated on the musical “Lysistrata Jones” in 2011. The couple have two adopted children and relish time spent in their Pennsylvania country home, not too far from Beane’s hometown of Wilkes-Barre.
But no matter his satisfaction in his personal life, Beane is acutely aware that growing social validation of gay relationships is still tempered by the private battles each gay man or woman conducts in the privacy of their own mind and heart. A recent posting on the Craigslist “Missed Connections” board doesn’t sound all that far away from Chauncey’s rustling of his newspaper and coded phraseology targeted toward a potential hook-up at the Automat in Greenwich Village:
The Nance — m4m (Broadway)
We exchanged glances both at intermission and after the show. You were with friends. You are blonde and so handsome! Wish I would have said hi before you walked away, and glanced back at me.