From the first preview of "The Nance," held on March 21, what I remember are the voices. Walking into the Lyceum, the oldest continuously operating legitimate theatre in New York City, an irony given that "The Nance" chronicles a bygone world of distinctly non-legit, I overheard a man and a woman talking in German. "Nein! Nein!" the woman was saying. "Nicht 'Fiddler on the Roof.' 'Die Producers!'" Apparently, they were arguing about which roles originated by Zero Mostel had been later played by Nathan Lane, star of "The Nance." For a moment, I thought they might also be talking about Lane's colleague in new show, Lewis J. Stadlen, who like Lane played Max Bialystock in the Broadway production of "The Producers."
As I slid out of earshot, the woman tipped her hand definitely toward Lane: I heard her bark, "Estragon! Estragon!" That "Waiting for Godot" character is yet another role played by both Mostel and Lane. Meanwhile, Chauncey, the part taken by Lane in "The Nance," is his alone, and the full house packing the Lyceum for the first public outing was thoroughly entertained and engaged by what they observed onstage.
Among the most effusive audience members were a woman in a full-length fur and a man crowned by a Bialystock-style Homburg. They were among the first folks to leap to their feet at the creative curtain call. (Jack O'Brien, the director, learned years ago from Ellis Rabb during their stint at the Lyceum with the APA in the 1960s not to waste the theatrical opportunities of the final bow.) On the way out, I heard this couple enact an eerie parallel to the German duo, with another Mostel/Lane parallel and in Russian. "Da! Da!" the woman trumpeted. "Forum! Forum!"
The post-performance meal, held across the street from the Lyceum at Bond 45, was conducted, as far as I could detect, entirely in English. After enjoying the generous buffet supper, I chatted with Douglas Carter Beane, author of "The Nance," who recently engaged in some of his own linguistic inspiration, providing a revised libretto for the Metropolitan Opera's upcoming production of Strauss's "Die Fledermaus." "I was so happy to finally see 'The Nance' with an audience," Beane told me. "They really seemed to warm to the world of burlesque, and to the backstage world of the play as well."
Jonny Orsini, who plays Ned in Beane's comedy-drama, told me about voices of another kind. I asked him about how he prepared to do his vocal interpretations in the play of two titanic figures of the American theater in the mid-20th century: Helen Hayes and Talullah Bankhead. "I took a tip from the comedian Jay Mohr. He said that if you have to do vocal imitations of famous people that you shouldn't listen to those people themselves. You should listen to someone else doing them." Orsini asked O'Brien, his director, to do his version of the voices - a wise move given O'Brien's massive mental fund of actor lore. "I listened to Jack doing the voices," Orsini said. "That way, I wasn't trying to do an exact imitation, but just to give the general flavor of those ladies." Before I drifted out of the restaurant and into Times Square and the cold of New York's interminable winter this year, Orsini asked me if I'd like to hear the O'Brien recording some time.
I nodded my head and said nothing, but inwardly I was thinking: "Ya! Ya! Da! Da!"
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com