The Nance and the Leopard at des Artistes

Risqué variety theatre known as burlesque is making a comeback at clubs like the Box in New York City. Imported from Victorian London, one of its stock characters was a so-called nancy man whose lines could be more outrageous than that of other performers. (In NYC burlesque theatre, an actress in drag, Murray Hill, currently plays this part.) Embodied by the great Nathan Lane, Chauncey Miles can’t stop himself from being increasingly outrageous the more he needs to tone down his act for his own protection.

In a new play by Douglas Carter Beane, The Nance, set in an era when gay behavior outside of the theatre could land you in jail, the entertaining Chauncey Miles is played by Nathan Lane as painfully in the closet. He goes so far as to be Republican and anti-Pinko, and feels that he must turn down a wonderful young man (Jonny Orsini), who loves him, in favor of easier-to-conceal chance hookups at the Automat. Cady Huffman plays an exotic dancer and fellow comedienne who can foresee change for society. Interspersing scenes of Chauncey’s struggle with onstage “cooch” acts like hers keeps the drama from feeling too tragic.

The ending isn’t tragic at all, and in it, Nathan Lane is at his most riveting. There’s an authentic period feel to the costumes and to a masterful set by John Lee Beatty that revolves to show the burlesque theatre stage, back stage and Chauncey’s arty apartment. The Automat set is very Edward Hopper.
Prix fixe at the old Café des Artistes

Portions aren’t huge at the three-course pre-theatre menu at the Leopard at des Artistes. But it’s incredible that you can now afford to eat at all in this art-filled palace on Central Park West! Be willing to eat very early or very late for the $35 pre- and post-theatre prix fixe, and make reservations.

Formerly bohemian hangout Café des Artistes, and once French, it became Italian when it changed hands and serves a specialty of grilled fish deboned at your table with waiterly flare. Risotto and ravioli were too al dente for our tastes, but that can be prevented next time by a word to the kitchen to overcook them.

The new back bar has a homey feel, with stacks of books and objets d’art and flattering lighting. We miss the murkier old L-shaped bar that served complimentary snacks of hard-boiled eggs, Ritz crackers and Liptauer cheeseball. The people who took over (Il Gattopardo is their other restaurant) made some improvements, such as a strategic mirror to better reflect the 1920s murals out front by Howard Chandler Christy. Surely a few of the models who posed without a stitch for Christy were stage soubrettes back in the day of The Nance.