13 August 2013

The Nance

Last month I saw Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance, a funny and moving play about a burlesque company in late 1930s New York. Chauncey Miller (Nathan Lane) plays the "Nance," an effeminate man who minces about the stage, tossing out double entendres. This stock character is normally portrayed by a straight man but Chauncey is gay at a time when being out of the closet is not only unacceptable, it can get you beaten up and thrown in jail. It is a dangerous time in the city not only for gay men but for burlesque; Mayor LaGuardia is up for reelection and his vice squad is cracking down on the bawdy shows as a way to score points with voters. Will Chauncey and his fellow actors survive or will the lights go out for them?

Chauncey is a man divided. On stage, he is the silly joker without a care in the world whose goal is to make the audience laugh. Off stage he lives a life in the shadows, frequenting dingy automats and second-rate restaurants where other gay men gather for clandestine meetings. Chauncey begins the show toeing the line (he's a Republican, a nice twist to his character) but by the end gathers the courage to be true to himself and stand up to the law and the world, even if it means the end of his career.

The bleak scenes of Chauncey’s off stage life are juxtaposed with the performances and antics of the burlesque company, which were great fun. Corny jokes, shimmies and shakes, song and dance routines along with backstage bickering give the audience an idea of what a burlesque show was like when pretty girls in pasties shared the stage with vaudeville acts. The only thing missing was a dancing dog.

Nathan Lane was perfect as Chauncey. An actor who can win laughs from the audience one minute while making them cry the next, he conveyed the character's complexity in ways few others could. He was surrounded by a strong supporting cast including Cady Huffmann as the outspoken, communist dancer Sylvie, Lewis J. Stadlen as Efram, the straight star to Chauncey’s Nance with a spot on old-time New York accent, and Jonny Orsini as Ned, Chauncey's young lover and the newest addition to the company.

The set design by John Lee Beatty was great, from the rotating set that allowed the audience to simultaneously see a performer doing his/her routine on stage and the other actors backstage to the authentic automat where Chauncey and Ned first meet. This combined with the costumes by Ann Roth and music by Glen Kelly helped to paint a picture of a bygone time in all its faded glamour and ugliness.

The Nance has finished its run but you can read more about it and see some clips from the show here

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