[Spoiler Warning: These comments include a lot of the plot.]
Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Nance” is a flawed but invaluable and perceptive window into the evolution of gay identity. Its plot is rather simple. Chauncey Miles is a skit comedian at a downtown New York burlesque house, the Irving Place Theater, in the 1930s. His specialty is an effeminate, presumably homosexual, man who uses double-entendres, glaring head turns, and limp wristed gestures to draw laughs in familiar comic sketches. These characters were know as “The Nance” and were a regular part of burlesque, and, to a certain extent, burlesque’s uptown sibling, vaudeville.
Chauncey’s life away from the theatre is governed by an intricate set of rules and contrivances that allow him to connect with other gay men without being prosecuted by a society that still criminalizes his fundamental identity. The opening scene takes place in Chelsea Horn and Hardarts Automat that is known as a meeting place for such “deviants.” On this day, Chauncey picks up a young, and very attractive, young man named Ned from Buffalo who has just abandoned his wife and come to the big city to live his identity as “a boy who likes boys.” The actual pick-up is an elaborate ritual, designed to protect both men from the ever-watchful eye of the vice squad that has been actively raiding such dens of iniquity.
Once home, Chauncey treats Ned as what is known in the parlance as “a trick,” a one-night stand after which both parties forget about their evening of passion and never see one another again. But Ned has not yet been acculturated. After all, this was the first time he had sex with man inside a home – as a closeted gay in upstate New York, his homosexual experiences were restricted to parks and alley-ways. He has come to New York to make a real life for himself and he has been lucky enough to meet someone he likes and could potentially love. But Chauncey wants nothing of this. He sees all relations between young and more mature men as “trade”– boys charging older men for sex. In fact, as will become evident by the play’s end, Chauncey is incapable of a long-term relationship, not because gay people are inherently promiscuous (as some people contend to this day), but because he has been forced to develop a self-identity that that does not – more accurately, cannot – include love and a stable relationship. It’s the 1930s. Men get arrested for showing signs of affection in public and their homes provide little refuge from the oppression of the law.
Chauncey has been so thoroughly acculturated into the ways of the underground queer life style that he thrives on the sense of danger and the game of the capture, rather than on the passion and feelings that might evolve out of a relationship with another man. But Ned will not give up and Chauncey gives in – treating this as a sort of experiment. Ned and Chauncey begin to keep house together and, at least for now, the audience experiences a near perfect May to September romance.
Meanwhile, things are getting touchy at the Irving Place Theater. The city has been cracking down on burlesque houses with a particular interest in the Nances, who, they say, encourage, even advocate for, deviancy. In the small world of downtown burlesque, Chauncey is a solid star capable of drawing crowds, whether they sit in the orchestra to laugh at the skits and be titillated by the stripers or in the balcony where they do “other things.” Chauncey is a life-long Republican who naïvely thinks the current crackdown on “fairies” is an election year tactic by Fiorello LaGuardia that will go away once his hero-mayor is reelected. Alas that is not the case.
Beane’s play has an entertaining, if somewhat obfuscating, structure. The scenes related to Chauncey and Ned alternate with recreations of the burlesque skits that make Chauncey’s Nance essential to the survival of the Irving Place Theater. Unfortunately, there are just too many of these sketches, making the play seem unnecessarily drawn out. Beane deserves credit for writing these sketches much as they might have played in the 1930s. The humor is funny, but crass. It’s burlesque, so it lacks any sophistication and, as a few friends reported to me before I saw the play, the sketches seem a bit tired and repetitive. But the Irving burlesque is not the Ziegfeld Follies and Chauncey Miles is no Milton Burle (TV’s first, but definitely not last, Nance) or Bert Lahr (think about that Nance of a lion in that iconic gay film). In fact, at one point in the action, the uptown producers come to see Miles at the Irving and reject him. Anyone who has seen any of Beane’s other works (e.g., Xanadu, As Bee in Honey Drown, Lysistrata Jones) knows that he can mix sophisticated humor with more base comedy when he wants to – but these sketches needed be entertaining, but not at the level of the great comedians – this is downtown where the price and jokes are cheaper and the playwright has been true to that reality.
There is also a subplot about the New York performers’ unions organizing a strike to protest the censorship of burlesque theaters. Beane is keenly aware of the political tensions of the period. One of the strippers is a card-carrying communist before the term “black list” was even invented. LaGuardia’s interest in cleaning up the entertainment industry is attributed to pressures from various religious organizations (sound familiar?). The eventual closure of the Irving Place Theater is portrayed as not so different from the recent transformation of 42nd Street into Disneyland for tourists (now those tourists have to walk a few blocks north to any one of the five strip clubs in the area, not to mention Hooters). Beane’s attention to portraying the various factors that influence the action of play is laudable, but they get in the way of his message.
In the end, I fear the play’s most profound observation is also a bit obscured. Eventually Ned discovers that Chauncey has been cheating on him – going to those designated automats and parks for nameless and passionless encounters. When confronted, Chauncey responds that he doesn’t go there for the sex, but that the game is a part of his identity. He has always lived a life in which he had to play the game to satisfy his quite natural instincts and he has developed an identity that is so divorced from our current movement toward same-sex marriage that he cannot be a lover and must live out his identity as a game player, a survivor. It would be easy to label him as self-loathing (a popular label for abnormal homosexual behavior, whatever that is). But Beane sees him as a tragic figure, as well he should. He is the victim of his time and place.
Unfortunately, the play has so much “other stuff” and not enough development of the relationship between these two lovers, that some people will leave the theatre seeing this as a play about the demise of burlesque or the mistaken impression that “The Nance,” or more accurately, laughing at the effeminate male, is a thing of the past. Not! Think Sean Hayes and Michael Urie. Worse, some may even raise the “inherent promiscuity” argument, missing Beane’s whole and commanding point: Chauncey is a victim whose self-identity has been perverted by a perverse society.
A flawed but worthwhile evening in the theatre with excellent performances, strong direction, appropriately chintzy costumes, and an engaging and atmospherically designed rotating set.