NEW YORK — If you were to incarnate the spirit of Broadway — the talent, the showmanship, the stamina for roller coaster rides — Nathan Lane would likely be your man.
A first banana with the most hilarious holler since Lou Costello's "Hey, Abbott!," Lane is one of the few performers working today who has what might be called a Pavlovian relationship with his audience: Ever since his legendary turn in the musical version of Mel Brooks' "The Producers," the mere sight of him onstage causes theatergoers to start foaming at the mouth in anticipation of laughter.
Happy as Lane is to have been given the seemingly ceaseless opportunity to play lusty Broadway con man Max Bialystock, he hardly wants to be defined by one role or feel compelled to keep repeating the same surefire shtick.
"Everyone should have that kind of success in their lives, but there was a backlash," Lane said, lounging backstage at the Lyceum Theatre, where this two-time Tony winner has just racked up another nomination for his performance in Douglas Carter Beane's "The Nance." "They want you to continue doing what they just loved you in. When I did 'Butley' after 'The Producers,' people were shocked that I was using a British accent even though I had made my debut in an old [Noel] Coward play."
A connoisseur of ironies, Lane acknowledged that some ardent fans of "The Producers" ultimately turned on the show itself: "You'd hear, 'Oh, it wasn't that good.' It was like they had awakened with a very expensive hooker and were ashamed that they had given away so much."
Lane's theatrical choices since "The Producers" have been purposefully varied. A good chunk of time was devoted to "The Addams Family," a critical flop that had a healthy Broadway run. Maybe too healthy.
Lane's basset hound eyes had a weary droop to them, perhaps because we talked when "The Nance" was in previews and undergoing last-minute revisions. Still, a long haul in a splashy theme-park venture like "The Addams Family" has to be depleting. Lane confided that, at 57, he's through with musicals.
"You reach a certain point in this life and say, 'I can't do this anymore. I think I've covered that.' Perhaps if some tremendous thing came along, but I would really think twice about it."
After removing his Gomez Addams pencil mustache, Lane took on one of the most herculean roles in the American theater: the pipe-dream-puncturing Hickey in Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," a part that's about as potent an antidote to the frivolity of "The Addams Family" as an actor could find.
Lane called his performance in Robert Falls' revival at Chicago's Goodman Theatre the best experience of his theatrical life. He got to work with his friend Brian Dennehy in a drama that has meant a great deal to him ever since he discovered it as a kid in a collection of O'Neill plays.
"Because of the description of Hickey and my Irish Catholic roots, I thought maybe one day I could play the role. But I also needed to shake things up and challenge myself as an actor. In many ways, I felt that I had come home."
Lane said he's not the least bit sore that the production didn't move to New York: "I wanted to do it in Chicago because I love Chicago so much and because the audiences there are quite frankly better. They're better theatergoers. They're like Londoners — it's part of their lives. They're hungry for that kind of challenging experience."
Of course, Lane is delighted to be starring once again on Broadway — his true home, no matter what he says about Chicago — in an ambitious new play set in 1930s New York about a vaudeville "nance" named Chauncey Miles.
By day a semi-furtive homosexual cruising Greenwich Village automats for a pickup, Chauncey is at night a flaming queen onstage, performing as a kind of gay minstrel in a burlesque act. As conservative in his politics as he is cynical in his personal life, he finds love offstage and success on it. But how long will society (or his own self-hatred) tolerate his happiness?
In the Tony race for lead actor in a play, Lane faces stiff competition from Tom Hanks ("Lucky Guy") and Tracy Letts ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"), but any role that puts both his comic and serious dramatic chops to the test is for him its own reward.
"I thought the play was beautiful, funny and wildly theatrical in the notion that the structure was going from serious scenes to the burlesque show and back and forth," he said. "It was also dealing with a fascinating piece of history.
"Everyone thinks about Stonewall when they think of gay history," he elaborated, making reference to the 1969 Greenwich Village riots that sparked the modern gay liberation movement, "and not so much about what came beforehand."
When asked whether he, as an openly gay performer, has any special insight into Chauncey's character, Lane demurred: "Apart from what you might have read in the New York Times, self-loathing hasn't been a problem of mine. I had many other issues growing up, but that wasn't one of them. Although I'm very sympathetic to people who have gone through that, and I can certainly relate to the concept."
If the tone sounds defensive, it's because Lane has had to fight to elude pigeonholes. He bristles at limiting categories such as "gay actor" or "musical theater performer," though this doesn't prevent him from accepting parts when they're right for him: "It's not like I think, 'Oh, another gay role. They're like barbiturates — you can only take so many!'"
Joking that today he's typecast either as a "crazed heterosexual producer [taking advantage] of little old ladies or a drag queen," Lane admitted to being a bit disappointed that more film work didn't follow "The Birdcage," the Mike Nichols film he starred in opposite Robin Williams. This was supposed to be his movie breakthrough, though, he quickly emphasized, in that charmingly superstitious, hubris-avoiding manner of actors, that he's just grateful to be working.
"It's not that I need to be starring in a franchise film to feel that I've made it," he added.
A bona fide Broadway star who still has box office clout, Lane knows that the theater is where he has the best opportunity to widen his range, though a recurring role on the CBS television drama "The Good Wife" has unexpectedly opened doors by casting him in an unfamiliar light.
"If I had known that all people wanted me to do was be severe and repressed and slightly ambiguous, I could have given them that long ago," he said.
Beloved in theatrical circles for keeping the tradition of Bert Lahr and Zero Mostel alive, Lane invoked another comic genius when asked about his role models: Jackie Gleason.
"I loved Gleason," he said. "I was fascinated by him. He was very funny, screamingly funny, but then he was a wonderful serious actor and had such pathos. There was a well of sadness there."
Lane is aware that he too has a bit of a reputation for being a brilliant funnyman with "a dark, troubled soul" but said that it's been "totally blown out of proportion."
"I'm Irish Catholic, and I think that says it all. I've overcome a lot. And I'm in a very good place."