Review: THE NANCE at Pride Films & Plays

Review: THE NANCE at Pride Films & Plays

Pictured: Vince Kracht and Royen Kent. Photo by Paul Goyette.

By Elizabeth Ellis

In 1930’s New York, gay men had to navigate a secretive, complex, and often dangerous set of rules and procedures simply to meet each other in public without interference or entrapment by the police. If two men sat too close together at a cafeteria, or if a man gazed a little too long at someone over a newspaper in a coffee shop, this behavior could alert undercover officers or, sometimes worse, the self-appointed morality enforcers. Curiously, at the same time, popular burlesque and vaudeville shows at multiple theaters featured exotic dancers, raunchy comedians and ultra-effeminate stock characters who employed double-entendres in their routines to escape notice from authorities. Douglas Carter Beane’s superb play THE NANCE, given a stellar local premiere by Pride Films & Plays, shows this strange duality of stereotyped gay characters and bawdy women as perfectly acceptable to view onstage, but the same behavior in real life was subject to scorn, scandal, and potential prosecution.

In THE NANCE, the Irving Place Theatre is home to the burlesque show, consisting of the comedy duo of Chauncey Miles, the titular “nance” (exaggerated gay character); Efram, his ”straight” man foil; and three singing and dancing strippers (Sylvie, Joan and Carmen). While their shows are successful and popular, they operate under a constant fear of closure from Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s morality spies. The performers do all they can to keep the Irving Place open, but they eventually realize they’re fighting a losing battle against the city and its narrow-minded officials.

Vince Kracht’s spectacular and nuanced performance anchors the production as Chauncey. It’s easy and familiar for Chauncey to show his glib and genial side to the world, but he cannot live his life authentically as a gay man. As a staunch Republican and conservative, Chauncey stands at a fork in the road – he knows his old way of life, as the nance in burlesque shows, will fade away soon, yet he refuses to join his left-leaning friends in walkouts and strikes to preserve the shows and theaters, and his livelihood. A chance meeting in a Horn & Hardart automat with Ned (the endearing and heartbreaking Royen Kent), a young man who escaped a loveless marriage in upstate New York, affords Chauncey the opportunity for real love and partnership. Ned offers Chauncey his heart, but Chauncey’s pain and disbelief that Ned could truly love him ultimately doom the relationship. Patrick Rybarczyk is droll perfection as Efram, and brings the necessary balance to Chauncey’s self-deprecating humor. The three burlesque dancers Melissa Young, Steph Vondell, and Britt-Marie Sivertsen (as Sylvie, Carmen, and Joan, respectively) give outstanding performances, rising above the possibilities of more stereotypes. Each of the three women show their formidable skills not only as singers and dancers, but also as strong and smart women who respect their work and fight for their rights as artists.

Director John Nasca beautifully utilizes the crisp rat-a-tat pacing of burlesque comedy, music and dance, but he slows and softens the pace in the more intimate moments between Chauncey and Ned. Nasca also designed the gorgeous and period-perfect costumes. Nathan Mittelman’s intricate and beautiful choreography, and Robert Ollis’ excellent music on Jeremy Hollis’ simple and flexible set create a fantastic vision that most of us are far too young to ever have seen: a real vaudeville experience.

We find the themes in THE NANCE – art vs. morality, sexual politics, living and loving honestly and openly – are still topical even decades after the era of burlesque and vaudeville. The fights for civil rights and artistic expression don’t end, but have to be revisited seemingly in every generation. What THE NANCE shows us is that while the fights keep happening, more and more artists and regular folks continue to support the right to freedom of expression and to unite against censorship, and will ultimately stand on the right side of history.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.