A Modern-Day Romeo: Nathan Lane’s Co-Star of ’The Nance’
In the first act of The Nance, Douglas Carter Beane’s moving portrait of a gay performer working in burlesque and living in the dangerous underground gay world of 1930s New York, a tall, good-looking young man emerges naked from a bath oblivious to the delight and astonishment of both the character played by Nathan Lane and the audience watching at the Lyceum Theatre. The Adonis in question is 27-year-old Jonny Orsini, who makes his Broadway debut in this hilarious yet heartbreaking play about the history of LGBT discrimination and the power of internalized homophobia centering on a forgotten chapter in theater history.
This is the second time this straight actor has taken on a gay role in a Douglas Carter Beane play, and also the second time Beane has required his full-frontal nudity. In 2008, Orsini was thrust into the spotlight in the role of the gay hustler in Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed after actor Jeremy Jordan suffered a case of appendicitis.
Though he is performing alongside two-time Tony Award-winning actor Nathan Lane in a Tony Award-winning playwright’s production, Orsini himself is not without accolades. For his role in The Nance, Orsini was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play in addition to receiving the Theatre World Dorothy Loudon Award for Excellence in Theatre.
Q: Tell us about your character, Ned. Is he just a wide-eyed rube in the big city, or is there more to him than meets the eye?
A: If you just read the script, you might think he is naive, and at the top of the play he is brand new to the city, but he’s very smart and emotionally intuitive. The biggest thing about him is he’s very openhearted, and he sees past superficial judgments. He knows who he is and he knows who he loves.
Q: What do you think draws Ned to Nathan Lane’s character, Chauncey?
A: Chauncey is so charismatic and so confident and seems to know exactly who he is and what he’s all about. For someone new to the city, it’s easy to be drawn to someone so confident and charismatic and charming and funny. That’s a huge thing in any relationship.
Q: And how is it to work alongside Tony Award-winner Nathan Lane?
A: He’s such a sweet person. He; Jack (O’Brien), the director; and Doug (Beane), the writer, were all so open. They never treated me like the new kid; they were just supportive, and all of us had so much fun together working on this every day. Nathan’s had a lot of fun collaborating on this project in particular. We’re really just very lucky.
Q: This is your second gay role in a Beane play. Any worries about being typecast, or are you already beyond that?
A: Not necessarily! I think when you read certain material, you find certain writers that you can feel the pulse, the heartbeat in their work, and it really resonates for you. For me, when I read Doug’s plays I can feel the pulse, which is interesting because I’m straight. But Doug is such an openhearted person that has this wit to him. It’s also not just all fun and games - this play happens to have funny scenes, but it’s a dramatic love story.
Q: Ned as a character is very emotionally vulnerable, putting himself out there for a love that might not be reciprocated. Which is more risky for you: this emotional vulnerability or the onstage nudity?
A: I’d say the emotional vulnerability. I guess it’s the way I’ve thought about the nudity. Ned is not overly aware of his sexuality in the sense that he emerges from the bathtub thinking, Oh, look at me. It’s more, I’ve been sleeping on a bench for four days, and now I’m taking a bath, and now I’m getting out to get a towel. It’s written as a funny moment, but what’s also funny is I’m just oblivious to the sexual quality of it. Of course, the first couple times you have to get used to it, but it doesn’t feel like people are looking at me naked. It’s just a day in the life. If it were gratuitous, I wouldn’t do it, because I’m not an exhibitionist or anything.
Q: This past June, you received the Theatre World Dorothy Loudon Award for Excellence, which was presented to you by your co-star. That must have been quite a moment for you.
A: He (Nathan) said some really nice things to me. He’s been very supportive to me and said some things that were so generous, and I’m really grateful to him. My mom, dad and sister were all there, and I’m glad to have family pretty close, both emotionally and close to the city. And the Theatre World Awards are so amazing. It’s all positive energy - no competition, no politics, nobody’s concerned with the commercial aspect of a show and if a nomination will sell more tickets. There’s none of that! It’s pure encouragement, and it was such a nice night! What I figured out is the best way I can help people is through storytelling. With that as my fundamental motivator, every day I just try to do what fulfills that. Wherever that takes me is anybody’s guess, but that’s what I always go back to.
Q: You also have a burgeoning film career, appearing in this summer’s The Girl Most Likely, starring Kristen Wiig, and the horror film Beneath.
A: I worked only a day on The Girl Most Likely, but Kristen is the real deal. She’s so sweet and so open; I couldn’t say enough good things about her. In Beneath, there are six kids who just graduated from high school, and they go out on a rowboat on this lake. Then the horror ensues. So I have a pretty cool role in that. I don’t want to give anything away, but people start to turn on each other and it gets really interesting.
Q: Of the two mediums - film and theater - which do you prefer?
A: What I love about theater is the rehearsal process. If you’re lucky enough to have a group that’s as invested as you are, you’re creating a whole world for your characters. You get to live, to spend more time in that world with the group of people you’re working with. In a movie, you can spend that time in your head, if you’re lucky, but you’re doing it on your own. I think what I love about theater is you do it together, as long as everyone’s game and in the same mind-set. It’s been so great to live in this 1930s burlesque world with this group of amazing people for months. Films can be so much fun too, but it’s more technical. On Beneath, we had a young cast and we were all living in the hotel together, so we got to spend a lot of time together, and that was really fun.
Q: Are there any plum stage roles you have your eye on?
A: I’d like to play Romeo, because the raw passion is something I connect with - and also because he’s girl crazy, and I’ll admit to that as well. But the passion! He’s so determined. It’s something I feel really connected to.
Q: In the play, Chauncey’s internalized homophobia doesn’t let him create a real relationship with Ned. How do you feel about the concept of gay pride, and about the struggle for marriage equality?
A: I grew up in a small town in Connecticut, played sports and didn’t really know any gay people. But I was raised to love everybody who had goodness in their heart, and that’s what I firmly believe in. I’ll support anything to that cause. I feel lucky with this character because beyond the superficial specifics, he is an openhearted person who loves everyone and is not ashamed to also love himself. That’s the difference between him and the Chauncey character: Chauncey has these self-loathing issues because he’s listening to the chatter of what other people think about him. But whether you’re gay or straight, we’ve all been in a position where people are trying to make us feel ashamed about who we are, so in that way it’s fully relatable. As long as you’re good to other people, you should never have to feel ashamed about who you are. I fully believe in that, and I fully support the struggle.
Q: Finally, we never really learn what happens to Ned after the curtain goes down. What future would you wish for him?
A: I think that no matter what life throws at you, when you keep positive energy and keep your heart open, there’s no way to go but up. For me, with Ned, what’s so heartbreaking is that Chauncey isn’t willing to come with him. Chauncey is drowning, and I throw him a life preserver, but he won’t take it. I don’t know if Ned becomes famous, but if he ever did become a celebrity, I don’t think it would go to his head. It’s like in the play, when he takes the stage for the first time and says, "It feels like there’s heat or something coming from out there." He just wants to be where the love is.
The Nance runs through August 11 at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street in New York City. For information or tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit lct.org