Jack O'Brien, the director of "The Nance," is a noted rehearsal-room raconteur, but I will not be filling your head here with his stories. He has performed that service for me: on June 18, Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish his tell-all, "Jack Be Nimble: The Accidental Education of An Unintentional Director." In it, he details his Midwestern childhood, quarter-century as artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe, and bold-face names he has worked with along the way. In my chat with him the other day in "The Nance" rehearsal room, however, the only trace of his professional history emerged when I mentioned the Lyceum, the Broadway house in which the new play will be housed.
"I grew up there, in the '60s, with the APA," he said, referring to the Association of Producing Artists, the Ellis Rabb-associated group that used the Lyceum for many of its productions. "I know every nook and cranny of that place," O'Brien continued. "And, much later, I directed 'The Invention of Love' there" -- a Lincoln Center Theater production.
But what drew O'Brien to "The Nance," apart from the chance for a homecoming with a memory-laden playhouse? "Three things," he responded. "First, the prospect of working with Nathan Lane. Second, because I'm a big fan of our playwright, Douglas Carter Beane. He's rightly known for his wit and his comedy but here he also shows what a fine writer of realism he is." Lastly, O'Brien said that he'd never directed an overtly gay play, though "overtly" may not be the exact word, as "The Nance" is set in a time, the 1930s, when risks for open homosexual behavior and relationships were huge.
"I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in the Midwest," O'Brien said, "so I know about the alienation being in the closet entailed." It would be wrong, he added, to think of "The Nance" as simply a gay play. "The piece speaks for itself on a far more universal level than one might suppose by reading a quick description."
Among the play's challenges, O'Brien explained, is bringing off the broad comedy of classic burlesque as set against the kitchen-sink naturalism of the off-stage scenes between Chauncey, the character played by Lane, and Ned, played by Jonny Orsini. "You usually don't see those two genres set side-by-side," O'Brien said. "But the comedy leavens the real-world moments, and the kitchen-sink aspect grounds the comedy."
I tell O'Brien that I suspect the burlesque jokes, however shopworn they read on the page, still have the ability to incite laughter in a 2013 audience. "That's because they utilize stock types of comedy, and those types never go out of style, however much they have to be reinvented." Another reason O'Brien suspects audience will lap up this humor: "For most people, good times trump bad times."
Performing burlesque, though, is in O'Brien's view a lost art. "We're dependent on YouTube to show us how those comedians used to do it. It's crucial that the actors delivering the jokes don't think too much about them. The gags are like Kleenex: too much pressure and they fall apart."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com