Strong performances elevate the Spinning Tree production of “The Nance,” Douglas Carter Beane’s 2013 comic drama that offers a sobering look at what it meant to be a gay man in New York some 80 years ago.
I saw the original Broadway production of “The Nance” a few years back so let me say up front that I love this play. No, it’s not perfect, but its flaws reflect only honorable intentions by Beane as he tried to mix Depression-era politics with still-valid points about sexual identity.
The play is at once a drama and a lavish valentine to the lost art of burlesque, a bawdy style of theater that mixed bump-and-grind sexuality, double entendres and the broadest of stereotypes. Its legacy, in desaturated form, lived on in comedy shorts and movies. The most famous routine incorporated into this show is “Niagra Falls” (aka “Slowly I Turned . . .”), in which the mere mention of New York’s most famous natural landmark sends a man into a violent rage. A quick YouTube search turns up versions by Abbott & Costello, the Three Stooges and Lucille Ball.
The central character is Chauncey Miles (Andy Perkins), whose specialty is playing the nance — a broadly effeminate over-the-top stock character. Nances were sometimes played by straight actors, but Chauncey is gay, which introduces a level of irreconcilable tension as he maneuvers between his burlesque career and a secretive sex life in the 1930s. In the early going we see Chauncey hanging out at an automat, a popular place for gay assignations, but even there people hoping to hook up exercised extreme caution. A guy never knew when a plain-clothes detective might collar him at a time when homosexuality was illegal.
But on this particular night Chauncey meets a young newcomer to New York named Ned (Timothy Michael Houston), so broke that he pours ketchup into a mug of hot water to make “tomato soup.” They quickly agree to meet at a newsstand down the block from whence they repair to Chauncey’s little apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. What might have been just another one-night stand turns into a relationship — albeit one strewn with obstacles — which eventually paves the way for Ned’s entry into show business.
At the Irving Place Theatre he meets Chauncey’s colleagues — Efram (R.H. Wilhoit), the “straight man;” strippers Sylvie (Katie Gilchrist), Joan (Ashley Personett) and Carmen (Sarah Montoya); and Rose (Victoria Barbee), the costume mistress.
Beane sets the play in 1937 at a time when Mayor Laguardia was intent on cleaning up the city’s less savory entertainment choices in advance of the World’s Fair. So a level of paranoia infects the performers, who remain vigilant as they look for city inspectors in every audience.
In terms of politics, Beane sets up a rough symmetry between Chauncey, a Republican and La Guardia fan, and Sylvie, a card-carrying Communist who rails against the capitalist overlords. In the end, both Chauncey and Sylvie are disillusioned — Chauncey when La Guardia really does shut down the burlesque houses, and Sylvie when the major show-business unions fail to support a walkout by the burlesque performers.
Co-directors Michael Grayman-Parkhurst and Nicole Marie Green stage the show energetically on a lean budget. The actors get a big assist from costume designer Shannon Smith-Regnier, whose outfits for the burlesque sequences often work as visual jokes. Wilhoit stands out as Efram, bringing precision and sustained comic mania to the burlesque routines. Gilchrist and Personett exhibit expert timing while Montoya contributes understated humor. Houston is effective as Ben, although he struggles a bit to find the right balance between naivete and worldliness. Barbee brings quiet professionalism to a utilitarian role. But central to this production’s success is Perkins, whose layered performance as Chauncey brings dramatic weight to a character who could easily get lost in a blizzard of glib repartee.
Chauncey’s emergence as a reluctant hero, one who stands up to the authorities in court and offers an eloquent explanation of what comedy is and how it works, is palpably poignant as played by Perkins. Perkins takes us along for the rollercoaster ride of Chancey’s highs and lows. Ultimately, Chauncey is reduced to playing a drab housewife with a dubious history in drag, a humiliating come down for a man who lives to perform on his own terms. For all of its hilarity, the show ends on a lonely note as the company of friends disperse and Chauncey, effectively banned from the stage, is alone in the theater where he plied his craft for so long.
And let’s face it — few things are sadder than a shuttered theater.
“The Nance” runs through Nov. 18 at the Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central. Call 816-235-6222 or go to spinningtreetheatre.com.