Review presented by UMB Private Wealth Management
New York. 1937. La Guardia is mayor. The burlesque scene is alive. And being gay is considered an act of sexual deviancy punishable by law. We learn about the latter fact in the very first scene of The Nance, written by Douglas Carter Beane. In an automat located in Greenwich Village, we’re introduced to Chauncey (Andy Perkins) and Ned (Timothy Michael Houston), who has only recently arrived in the city and is without a place to live. Chauncey strikes up a conversation with his potential mark, attempting to deduce if Ned is merely there for the food or for something more. He’s tactful about it. Equally charming and careful. Chauncey tells Ned that he’s only interested in three things. The first is politics; he’s a staunch Republican. The second is showbiz; he’s in it. And the third—the most relevant to the situation—is finding the place where the boys meet the boys. This particular automat, Chauncey reveals, is one of those places. An offer is extended. If he’s interested in taking things further, all Ned needs to do is meet him around the corner in a half an hour.
The lights cut off, the scene ends, and we reopen in the Irving Place Theatre to a song and dance number being performed as part of a burlesque show. Music, dancing, and comedy. The very thing Mayor La Guardia is attempting to snuff out through random police raids that can hit at a moment’s notice. It has caused some concern amongst the staff, mainly Efram (R.H. Wilhoit) the club’s manager and resident master of schtick. In his employ are Sylvie (Katie Gilchrist), Joan (Ashley Personett), and Carmen (Sarah Montoya), the show’s vocally talented, sex-appeal element. Finally, there’s Chauncey, the show’s Nance, a hyper-effeminate gay character that has proven to be a huge hit with customers. This isn’t the same coy gentleman we met in the automat. The Nance is loud, crass, but above all else, hilarious. Hilarious but gay, the very thing that makes Chauncey a target in the eyes of the cops, even though he’s portraying a caricature of what a gay man is.
It’s here though—in the burlesque environment—that the cast really shines as performers. Gilchrist, Personett, and Montoya nail their respective routines and ooze all the confidence a burlesque dancer requires. Personett’s performance of Don’t Burst My Bubble, complete with a bubble-popping striptease, is a clear standout. Another highlight is R.H. Wilhoit, who has the heavy burden of being the funniest man in the show, yet the voice of reason behind the curtain. The parts where Efram is in full comedy mode zipping off one-liners are gold. Of course, the show wouldn’t be complete without its Nance, and Perkins goes as big as humanly possible with it, playing it fearlessly. The beauty of The Nanceis the unique storytelling format, switching between Chauncey’s civilian life and his life in the show. It also raises some obvious questions of what it means to be a gay man in 1930s New York. Is it inherently wrong? Does being gay really make you a deviant as La Guardia would have the public believe? And what does it say about Chauncey that he’s turning a profit by playing a stereotype of himself? This is all addressed as Chauncey faces the fact that being the Nance could be a danger to himself and the livelihood of his co-stars should they get shut down. To complicate things even further, Chauncey turns his fling with Ned from the automat into a full-blown relationship, even though monogamy has never really suited him. Their onstage dynamic is the heart of the show. It works—so when Chauncey’s self-destructive tendencies come out, it’s all the more painful to witness.
It’s hard to nail down The Nance in a simple summary because there’s so much going on. One minute it’s hilarious. The next minute it’s pulling heartstrings. It’s political. It’s a love story. It’s a comedy sketch. This could have the potential to be jarring, but the show is so well-balanced and paced that the comedy/drama formula never feels off. Much of the why The Nance is a success can be attributed to the ensemble cast, all of them pulling double-duty with their characters and burlesque alter egos. But a special mention needs to be given to Andy Perkins who plays the titular character. His performance is everything you hope to see in theater, full of range and complexity. For Perkins’ performance alone I’d recommend this show, but the rest of the cast is on their game and this story is an important one that deserves to be heard, especially during these arduous political times. I have a feeling that The Nance is going to be this fall’s sleeper hit in the theater circuit. It’s that good.
The Nance is presented by Spinning Tree Theatre and is showing at the Just Off Broadway Theatre thru November 18th.