I imagine practically no one still alive ever saw firsthand a nance act—the fluttery, bawdy comic gay stereotype that was a fixture in burlesque shows of 80 years ago. Turner Classic Movies addicts probably recognize their film counterparts, the Edward Everett Hortons and Franklin Pangborns that queened up Depression-era comedies and made even Fred Astaire look dead butch by comparison—though God and the Hays Code forbid the G-, H-, or F- words were ever uttered.
On the burlesque stage, things were far looser, and Douglas Carter Beane tells the story of one such act in his zingy backstage dramedy The Nance, running through November 19 at ArtsWest.
The actors who played nances—spraying double entendres like seltzer bottles and trading cornball but hilarious banter with the baggy-pants comics and the bombshell dancers—were usually gay-for-pay straight guys. Chauncey Miles, the hero of Beane’s play, however, is not.
The chasm between the openness and acceptance the burlesque world offered and the extreme closeting the outside world required—at the risk of jail time or worse—brings a good deal of pathos to Chauncey’s story. The Nance’s main narrative covers the increasing pressure from then-New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia to shut down burlesque shows to score morality points in an election year. Further poignancy comes from Chauncey’s this’ll-all-blow-over denial of the threat—he’s a pro-La Guardia Republican and staunch FDR/New Deal opponent. (Even as colleagues are fired around him and starvation looms, he scoffs at the idea of taking a Federal Theatre Project job.)
It’s also the story of Ned, the young man from the sticks Chauncey meets and falls for, and these two plotlines are woven, with impressive deftness, around lots of burlesque dance and comedy routines. ArtsWest’s staging places the action among onstage tables (a seating for two for any performance goes for $125), establishing a cabaret atmosphere; it’s like an extra-naughty Teatro ZinZanni show with a touching social-issues drama at its core.
Richard Gray is magnificent in the title role, making both Chauncey and his onstage comic persona mirror images but distinct, fully inhabited and nuanced. As Chauncey, he’s somehow both avuncular and fey (think Charles Gray as “The Criminologist” in The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and in the burlesque-show segments he’s a sparkling Roman candle of innuendo, a hyper-caffeinated Charles Nelson Reilly. The start of Act 2, a trial scene, is a tour de force for Gray; his testimony defending his burlesque show from charges of indecency is guarded at first, but gradually becomes more flamboyant as he warms up and starts playing to his courtroom audience. Chauncey can’t turn off the performer inside even when his career is on trial.
Drew Highlands is wonderfully affecting as Ned, catching the subtle but telling differences between having to stifle his gayness totally or let it out gingerly depending on where he is and who’s watching. As Efrem, the show’s head comic, Jeff Steitzer seems like an actual veteran of ’30s burlesque somehow frozen and reanimated.
Ann Cornelius, Jasmine Jean Sim, and Diana Cameron McQueen are the three vivacious ladies of the burlesque troupe, as skilled at saucy song and dance as they are at drama. Cornelius’ character, Sylvie, is a fervent leftist; she and Chauncey represent bickering opposite ends of the era’s political spectrum, and the look at the economic issues at stake back then is absorbing,
There is, though, a slight feeling of contrivance at play: Through Chauncey, Beane seems to be airing his personal grievances about modern-day gay Republicans, even though what it meant to be one back then—when no political party, right, left, or center, was on your side anyway—doesn’t map very well onto what it means today, (A similar, and far more blatant, sense of score-settling sinks his 2006 play The Little Dog Laughed.)
ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery
West Seattle, 4711 California Ave. SW