Review: The Nance

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This is Douglas Carter Beane’s best play yet! In The Nance, he delves into a world that has long fascinated me, the world of effeminate gays as characters in nightclub entertainment of the early 20th Century.

In the early 1930s there was a now mostly forgotten “pansy craze” whose most successful performer was one Jean Malin, who we can see knocking gangsters on the floor and channeling Mae West and Sophie Tucker in this video:

Jean Malin-Arizona to Broadway-1933 by redhotjazz

Contrary to the video, however, Malin mostly emceed out of drag. He didn’t impersonate women, but performed as an openly gay male, confidently swishing.

The Nance deals with a slightly later era, around 1937. The craze itself had passed, but pansy comics or “nances” were still popular in burlesque houses. The play tells the story of Chauncey Miles (Nathan Lane), one such headline nance performer.

Combining burlesque sketches with comedy, romance and drama, Beane paints a complex, fascinating portrait of a gay man, living and working in the secretive and dangerous gay world of 1930s New York, whose outrageous stage antics stand in marked contrast to offstage life.

Just as Beane is doing some of the best work of his career so far, so is Nathan Lane. His burlesque performances are rich with the comic timing for which he’s so well known. But the main story is Chauncey’s romance with pretty young thing Ned (Jonny Orsini), in which he plays so many shades of desire and insecurity and even love – it’s a knockout.

Orsini is a knockout too, not only visually – there’s no question why Chauncey is attracted to Ned – but also in the acting department. Orsini plays Ned with such sweetness and joy of discovery that Ned almost takes over as the play’s central character. Almost. Lewis J. Stadlen is marvelously hilarious, too, as Chauncey’s boss and comic partner. Cady Huffman also stands out in her zesty portrayal of a communist stripper.

The Nance is incredibly ambitious, mixing dirty jokes with great poignancy, politics and even a hint of mysticism, and Beane carries it all through with dazzling intelligence, plunging the depths and hitting the heights. It’s the best play I’ve seen on so many levels in a very long time, and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

For tickets, click here.

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