Chicago Theater Review: THE NANCE (Pride Films and Plays at the Pride Arts Center)

by Lawrence Bommer on July 7, 2017

in Theater-Chicago

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BIGOTRY AT THE BURLESQUE

Some swan songs will never sound sweet. Take the fade-out of female impersonators in Elizabethan drama. Or the final white thespian to wear blackface. Or—well, witness the demise of the “nance,” an effeminately nelly, stereotypically gay travesty (often a self-mocker like the African-American entertainers who “corked up” in minstrel shows). Every night on some cornball stage in the early 20th century, this comic cliché would “come out” for all the wrong reasons and in all the wrong ways.

Well, all bad things must come to an end: Chauncey Miles, anti-hero of Douglas Carter Beane’s 2013 cautionary comedy, is the dubious star of The Nance, an amorous evocation of bad burlesque. (Some could sardonically argue that, as long as we endure the limp-wristed likes of Paul Lynde, Liberace, or Richard Simmons, the “nance” genre—the name a combination of “Nancy boy” and “mince”—is far from extinct.)

Like the epicene emcee in Cabaret, Hitler’s jester in Mephisto, or the Nazi-loving drag queen in Bent, in early 1937 Chauncey Miles is an unreconstructed and delightedly vulgar vaudevillian—and an arguable traitor to his orientation. A ham bursting from his sandwich, he’s ripe with doubles entendres, innuendo, groaner puns and unprocessed moxie. Piling on Chauncey’s confounding ambiguities, Beane makes this atavistic throwback an equally unreconstructed right-winger. Defending his enemies, Chauncey manically agitates against Franklin Roosevelt (and supposed Communists in his company). He’s disappointed that his fellow Republican, Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, is trying to ban his act and—through Chauncey’s nemesis Paul Moss, commissioner of licenses—close his artistic home, The Irving Place Theatre. Alas, too many “roundups at the So Gay Corral” have made Gotham homosexuals as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a cattle stampede. Those hot-and-heavy trysts in the balcony are suddenly verboten.

Now a Chicago premiere, John Nasca’s spirited staging for Pride Plays drives home Beane’s bittersweet depiction of a showbiz dinosaur, ogling the crowd with his trademark “Hi, Simply Hi!” and confessing to be queer (“not that that makes me a bad person”). Until January 14, 1937, that is: Casting himself against type, Chauncey (Vince Kracht) takes a risk and declares his true colors (and they’re not lavender and mauve) when he lets himself fall for Ned, the closeted married man he clandestinely meets in a Greenwich Village automat.

Younger and homeless, Ned (Royen Kent), naively fresh from upstate New York, quickly falls for the fey charms of this flaming burlesque sensation. Chauncey at first cynically mistakes Ned for one more “trick of the trade.” But soon he’s astonished to discover the guy is just a regular romantic ready to make up for lost time. Ned moves in to Chauncey’s confirmed-bachelor digs in Hell’s Kitchen—and slowly Chauncey succumbs to a domestication that tempers desire. Ned becomes a “straight man” in the Irving Place acts, then moves on to bigger gigs like gay icon Cole Porter’s Red, Hot and Blue. Chauncey, however, is eventually restricted to one “nance” act per program: He remains stuck with his stereotype and too much gallows humor.

Sharing the Irving Place stage with their headliner is a loyal troupe of specialty acts and high-hoofing chanteuses: straight manager/top banana Efram (Patrck Rybarczyk); socialist-sympathizing stripper Sylvie (Melissa Young); supposed Spanish spitfire Carmen (Steph Vondell); and peppy peroxide-blonde Joan (Britt-Marie Sivertsen). All but commenting on the action, their on-stage shenanigans regale us with music-hall classics and vintage sketches: “Meet Me Round the Corner (In a Half an Hour),” “Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” “Order in the Court,” “Niagara Falls,” “Goin’ Back to Our Shack in Wacki-ki-ki,” “Da Da Da,” “I’m Sentimental,” “A Little Something on the Side,” “A Fallen Woman,” “Don’t Burst my Bubble,” and the all-purposes ballad “Everybody’s Looking for Love.” Apart from its vaudeville valedictory, The Nance is a pizzazz-packed trove where gags meet giggles.

In eleven scenes covering a mere five months (including an abortive theater strike), we see nurturing Ned bring out an emotional confidence in Chauncey that ironically undermines his willingness to prance as a nance. Facing—and defying—change like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Chauncey persuades himself that LaGuardia’s crackdown is just “re-election showmanship” and will disappear with victory. (Sadly, not everyone believes in fairies.) Worse, this tyro’s randy alley-catting habits return. True love, Chauncey bitterly admits: “This not what I should be having.”

So, as much-tested Ned’s gradual alienation combines with puritanical censorship (we’re not at La Cage Aux Folles), Chauncey, now reduced to drag, is increasingly isolated, his act becoming an unwanted solo. A left-handed reference to Phantom of the Opera, the play’s final moment all but embalms in amber our “used and discarded” Chauncey Miles.

Though no one could match the whiplash double-takes, wizard throwaway zingers, and stopwatch timing of Nathan Lane (the original Chauncey), Vince Kracht cracks wise and determinedly drives home the moral drag of lonely Chauncey’s rebellion without a cause. This deadpan dreamer can relish ancient lovers Damon and Pythias on stage but offstage—no, life perversely refuses to imitate art. Regrettably, the emblematic part embodies too many contradictions: Chauncey’s biggest jokes are on himself.

Royen Kent grounds steadfast Ned in saving sympathy, essential because Kent and Kracht expose little old-fashioned “chemistry.” Patrick Rybarczyk can sell any song or steal any scene. Nicely distinguished, the chorines are irresistible—Sivertsen’s dotty take on Harlow, Vondell’s subdued version of Carmen Miranda, and especially Young’s Eve Arden-like confidante.

The empty tables at the Irving Place Theatre say it all about the world we’re in and that won’t outlast a second world war. Happily, the Pride Arts Center will be fine and filled. Eighty years after Beane’s time capsule, people have never needed to laugh more. And in 2017 it’s way too easy to get nostalgic for an honest rascal like LaGuardia.

photos by Paul Goyette

The Nance
Pride Films and Plays
Pride Arts Center – The Broadway, 4139 N. Broadway
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 5; Wed (July 19 and 26) at 7:30
ends on July 30, 2017 EXTENDED to August 13, 2017
for tickets, call 800.737.0984 or visit Pride Films and Plays

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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