I have always maintained that the greatest live performers - Judy Garland, Teresa Stratas, Laurence Olivier - can, in a split-second, go from the highest high to the lowest low. Far from being mere stage histrionics, this quick-change often mirrors the stuff of daily life. Almost everyone walking into yesterday's opening night of Douglas Carter Beane's The Nance, at the Lyceum, had heard of the tragic explosions at the Boston Marathon. Many in this theater-savvy group had also heard the joyous news that, that morning,Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar, had won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. And the especially aware attendees knew that one of the two other finalists for the prize was 4000 Miles, by Amy Herzog. Both Disgraced and 4000 Miles had acclaimed runs under the auspices of LCT3.
The Nance also combines happy and sad. But it was the merriment that predominated at the opening-night party, which was held at a Marriott Marquis ballroom across Times Square from the period jewel Lyceum Theater, where Beane's comedy-drama is running. Guests were treated to a heaping buffet, which featured some of the delicacies mentioned in the show: franks and beans, pastrami. I suspect that Chauncey Miles, Lane's character, would have been happy with not only the provisions but with the potables.
I had watched some of the celebrity guests to the play itself - Lane's "The Good Wife" colleagues Julianna Margulies and Josh Charles, his "Modern Family" colleague Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and his friend and former The Producers co-star, Matthew Broderick - spill out of the Lyceum. Now, I got to watch many of them mill about the Marriott. I spoke with Victor Garber, who has known Lane for years: they worked together in the workshops for two Sondheim shows: Assassins and Wise Guys. (which later became Road Show).
"Broadway audiences frequently get to see the comic-genius side of Nathan, but they don't always get to see what a great dramatic actor he is. That's partly because roles as good as the one in The Nance don't come along every day. In this production, I think Nathan really outdoes himself. He's added even more colors to his palette."
I also spoke with George Chauncey, the Yale historian whose work "Gay New York" inspired Beane and after whom Lane's character is named. He had enjoyed The Nance at an early preview and was excited to see it again opening night. "It's gotten even better," he said. "It's quite something to see just how much work gets done in the preview period. How things get edited and tightened, and how the actors find all kinds of new emotions to play. How the emotions have gotten both larger and smaller."
I attempted to ask cast members of The Nance - which also includes Jonny Orsini, Lewis J. Stadlen, Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber, Andrea Burns, Mylinda Hull, and Geoffrey Allen Murphy - to talk to me about the emotional work that had gone on in previews. But each time I did they were surrounded by so many well-wishers that I didn't have a chance. I suspect I will have an opportunity to talk to them all as The Nance continues its audience-pleasing run on Broadway.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com