“The Nance” is a broadway PLAY, NOT a comedy, though it’s being billed as such. And it’s a challenging one for gay men to sit through. It’s dark, difficult and disturbing, highlighted only by comedy in the crude burlesque scenes that alternate with the drama of a tragic gay love story. Which isn’t pretty. I’m just warning you.
However, in the end, one has to admit its’ unpleasant truths about gay men of that era, and their immense self-loathing, are piercingly accurate. “The Nance” makes “Boys in the Band” look like “Hello, Dolly,” by comparison.
I immediately and admittedly did not like it at all. But then, this morning, after I woke up from “The Nance”s- inflicted dark-night-of-the-soul, I had to admit that it is an important work of gay theater, and essential and original, even, in the unspairing look that it takes of a by-gone era of gayness. Gay men at that time HAD to act in that unenlightened, stereotypical way. They didn’t have role models. They didn’t have the Gay Rights movement. They had nothing, except self-hatred. They didn’t know how to be anything else.
I never heard of “a Nance” in all my long gay life. I knew Franklin Pangborn’s and Edward Everett Horton’s campy turns from film, but I had not ever heard of the existence of a this sub-genre of burlesque that evidently was a home for many closeted gay types of that time, but then EVERYONE was in the closet then.
But some people didn’t hate themselves,nor where they in the closet.Like for instance Quentin Crisp.
I knew Quentin Crisp, who painted a VERY different picture of gay life in London of that time, completely without the self-loathing that “The Nance” wallows in. See “The Naked Civil Servant” for a very different picture of that era, the 1930’s, this time in London. Admittedly though, Quentin was not in show business, at that time, though he certainly was later in life. His was performance art, as it were, on the street. He LIVED in drag.
I knew a drag queen performer from Vaudeville, the late great Minette, who talked endlessly and fondly of those days (she also worked in Carnivals as well as Burlesque), but only and always in drag, which was a revered, always employable tradition. She never once mentioned the words “nance.” And I knew her very, very well.I wish she was alive now so I could ask her about the purported Nance’s of her time. She probably didn’t think much of them. To her drag was an art, the greatest art.
Nathan Lane, whom this part was written for, has to be commended for his bravery in taking on such an unflattering role. His comedy, of course, soars, especially in the finale, when he is “reduced” to, horror of horrors! playing in burlesque skits in drag. Which his character of “The Nance” considers the lowest of the low. That also offended me. Especially, as this seems to be what his character of Chancey Miles does best, and should-be been doing all along.
Lane, who is now Out as a gay performer, is so close to this part it irks, while it also rings unsettlingly true.
The piece-de-resistance was the opening scene in an Automat(How I miss that long gone New York institution!) where Lane’s Chauncey is so in the closet it’s painful, as he tries to pick up a beautiful young dream boat (Jonny Orsini) without looking directing at him the entire time, for fear of the police casing the joint. The Vice Squads of the time were always looking to make arrests of unsuspecting gay men trying to hook up. It happened on a weekly, if not nightly basis.
“Meetcha ‘Round the Corner in a Half-an-Hour” Chauncey tells the too-good-to-be-true Ned. And that Burlesque signature line takes on new meaning when Ned actually does just that and moves into Chauncey’s basement Greenwich Village flat. Marvelously evoked by John Lee Beatty’s detailed set which revolves around to reveal the Village Burlesque house, the Irving Place theater, 1937, where Chauncey plies his campy trade.
“Anna Mae Wong’s nightmare” as Chauncey describes his Orient-accented apartment, where the bathtub is in the living room, covered by a board to make a table, and affording the comely Ned a chance to bathe and parade nude, mais oui.
Chauncey’s unwillingness to accept the love and stability that the Perfect and incredibly hot Ned is offering him, is believable at first, but then horrifying in the end, when SPOILER ALERT! he rejects Ned’s monogamy as well as his love completely. THAT was the very disturbing scene to me. How Chauncey completely messes up the one happiness life seems to be offering to him.I’d never send the wonderful, devoted, beautiful, spectacularly endowed Ned packing!
But, Playwright Douglas Carter Beane is saying, this is what his character of the Nance, HAS to do. He has been so beaten up(literally) and beaten down by straight society( he does get arrested) he can’t accept or be happy with anything except rejection. At first, I was so appalled at how Chauncey and Ned ended their love story that I rejected “The Nance” as Chauncey rejects Ned.
But now I see, in the clear light of morning, that Douglas Carter Beane has written an immaculately researched and accurate telling of that era. And in the process, he has also written his first great gay play that is not a comedy. It’s an important social drama. Masterfully directed by the great Jack O’Brien.
So bravo to all involved!