When John Lee Beatty began conceptualizing his Tony-nominated set design for The Nance," he thought of the American artist Edward Hopper. "It's easy to go to Hopper because his work looks like scenery already," said Beatty, who spoke to me on the phone the other day from Central Park, where his design for the Public Theater's production of The Comedy of Errors was being readied at the Delacorte.
Before long, however, Beatty realized that another 20th-century American painter would be a more appropriate inspiration: Reginald Marsh, who, as it happens, is the subject of an exhibition called "Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York," which runs from June 21 through September 1 at the New-York Historical Society. Among the factors influencing Beatty's move to Marsh: the artist, who was born in Paris, in 1894, and died in Dorset, Vermont, in 1954, had done a painting of the Irving Place Theater, the burlesque house in which The Nance partly takes place. "I looked at that, and at Marsh's paintings of the Bowery," Beatty said. "I already had a couple of books of Marsh's work, so I didn't have to go far to look at his pictures."
"Marsh animates the whole surface of his work," Beatty continued. "He has a very graphic style, and a lot of his work depicts crowds - the bustle of urban life." Beatty said that he imagined Marsh's world as he journeyed through his set design for The Nance. "For example, I normally don't do sign collages in my set designs. But I was inspired by Marsh's signs to do some."
Beatty is perhaps more directly impacted in his creative process when he is inspired by a painter than are other set designers. Why? "I'm an old-fashioned," he said. "I do sketches." Beatty did four primary sketches for The Nance, corresponding to the locations of the story: an Automat; onstage at the Irving Place; backstage at the Irving Place; and the apartment occupied by Chauncey Miles, the character played by Nathan Lane.
Beatty had a discussion about Marsh with the production's creative team: director Jack O'Brien, playwright Douglas Carter Beane, costume designer Ann Roth, and lighting designer Japhy Weideman. "Everyone saw how right Marsh's visual style was for the show," Beatty said, "and were influenced by it in some way."
Beatty made particular use of Marsh's color palette. "He likes to use interesting shades of brown," Beatty said. "They are deeper than sepia, almost a tobacco-brown." He added: "Marsh uses fairly 'dirty' colors, appropriate to the Depression. I was trying to respect that."
Given Marsh's love of depicting Bowery bums, burlesque queens, and Coney Island musclemen - what some might call "low life" and what the New York Historical Society descriptive material calls "crass glamour" and "gaudiness" - Beatty said he was a little surprised to learn about Marsh's biographical background: prep school at Lawrenceville, college at Yale, not to mention a wealthy grandfather on his father's side. "I was surprised that such a social realist was not more proletarian," Beatty said. "But then you realize that Marsh is a true artist, in that he's a keen observer, and that quality doesn't have to do only with someone's sociological background."
Beatty said it was essential that his design for The Nance reflect a quality that is characteristic of Marsh: lack of glitz. "It was important that we create a world that was not super slick."
Slick or not, Beatty's set for The Nance is striking. Its colors and its rotating aspect - "I'm notorious for rotating sets," Beatty commented - are on glorious display late in the evening. (I won't tell you exactly how, as that would spoil the surprise.) "We didn't want to show off all the bells and whistles too early," Beatty said. "That would have been too slick - not at all in keeping with our inspiration."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com
Editor's Note: More of John Lee Beatty's set sketches can be see here.