Pictured: Andy Perkins. Photo by J. Robert Schraeder/Spinning Tree Theatre.
By Bec Pennington
In the vaudeville days of structured innuendo, the Nance was flamboyant comedy relief, skirting censorship and mocking away the discomfort of conservative culture as a two-dimensional character who wasn’t just happy – why, he was downright gay!
As the lights come up, Chauncey Miles is boldly yet surreptitiously introducing himself in an automat to a newcomer in the hopes of a quick tryst. The young homeless Ned catches his pity as well, and soon Mr. Miles has invited him to stay and is introducing Ned to the world of Irving Place Theatre. The pansy acts and strip teases in New York are of much concern to Mayor La Guardia, however, who has determined to rid the city of them entirely, as well as prosecute “sexual deviants.” As his friends and coworkers passionately express their optimism in union power to save their long-standing professions, Chauncey unwittingly and unwillingly becomes their hero in a fight he does not want.
Douglas Carter Bean’s brilliant script sharply critiques the injustices of the era with bitingly satirical vignettes, peppering the play with quick setups and saucy winks, but it would be a forgettable production without the development of his lead, Chauncey Miles, off the stage. For Spinning Tree Theatre’s production of THE NANCE, Andy Perkins brings gentle complexity to Chauncey, a real-life homosexual who portrays a caricature of himself in the seedy burlesque theatre each night. He is adorable as a performer, confident and independent in a world that at best has been chiding. Watching this man cling to the virtues of a culture that has declared him unvirtuous is at first puzzling; Chauncey is a proud conservative Republican, brashly certain that his party is temporarily throwing him under the bus for the greater good. But as the plot continues, the personal conflict and misery begin to piece his motivations together into a heart-rending picture of a man whose only uncertainty is his own worth.
Spinning Tree has put together a stellar cast in an intimate venue that reflects the style of the script well. Timothy Michael Houston’s Ned is sweetly earnest as Chauncey’s naive love interest. R.H. Wilhoit, Ashley Personett, Sarah Montoya and Victoria Barbee round out the supporting cast with great timing and musical performance, and Katie Gilchrist’s Sylvie is captivating as the card-carrying communist spitfire and real friend to Chauncey when he needs her most. Her comedic improvisation skills can take any scene from funny to side-splitting. Of small note, while the minimal scenery is adequate for the show, it’s a bit unwieldy at times for the cast. However, the sound and lighting design are well-executed, and the production is comfortable and engaging.
With the tension of a story set at the end of the Great Depression and focused on a forcefully closeted gay man who grapples not with who he is, but with what he deserves, THE NANCE should be tragic and intolerable. But while the humanity of the situation serves to draw our empathy, it is above all utterly, endearingly funny. I would say go because of the elections, because of the value of seeing life through another lens, but really it’s because it has made me smile.
THE NANCE runs through November 18. For more information visit spinningtreetheatre.com.