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THEATER REVIEW The Nance
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-07-12

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Playwright: Douglas Carter Beane. At: Pride Films and Plays at the Pride Arts Broadway, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets: $30-$40. Runs through: July 30

The effeminate—or merely unmanly—male has been a stock character in comedy since antiquity, his risible appeal arising from the reversal of expectations at the foundation of popular humor to this day. In Western literature, the overtly gay element gradually became de-emphasized, with Aristophanes' Cleisthenes and Plautus' Ballio giving way to the less sexually disambiguous Casper Milquetoast. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane pays homage to the last of this venerable archetype, the "nance" of burlesque—vaudeville's coarser counterpart—and his ribald celebration of same-sex eroticism from the safety of double-entendre repartee.

Beane's microcosmic setting is New York City in the winter and spring of 1937, where nance-act Chauncey Miles stars at Greenwich Village's Irving Place Theatre, sharing the stage with Efram, Ned, Sylvie, Joan and Carmen—respectively, Top Banana, Second Banana, Red Hot Mama, Blonde Bombshell and Spitfire Exotic.

Chauncey has a secret, however: His poufy persona is not just a "masquerade," like drag—no, he really is what he pretends to be for a living. In an election year, when Mayor LaGuardia has vowed to stamp out "public indecency" and entertainment promoting it ( what goes on in the balcony when Chauncey speaks of "falling on a cactus and feeling a little prick"? ), this could mean arrest, imprisonment and an end to his career.

Chauncey himself is something of a stock character in gay history, too, his downfall recalling that of Oscar Wilde—both talented individuals, so sure of their protected status that they ignore the signs warning them of imminent retribution. We first meet Chauncey in a local eatery, where he instructs a down-on-his-luck country boy in methods of arranging assignations under the very eyes of police informers. We learn that his political views, unlike those of his leftist colleagues, lean toward support of the status quo he never suspects will someday turn on him. Finally, we watch him reject an offer of a stable relationship to instead pursue the reckless behavior that will prove his undoing.

Burlesque has largely gone the way of minstrel shows, its amusing properties nowadays viewed as a quaint reflection of a more parochial age. As staged for Pride Films and Plays with museum-accurate period authenticity ( fan dances, balloon dances, "Sister Kate's Shimmy" and the famous "Niagara Falls" sketch ) by John Nasca and a hard-working ensemble led by Vince Kracht's bravura performance in the title role, though, this forgotten art form cannot help but awaken nostalgia even in the most enlightened playgoer.


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