Cleveland’s decades of acting experience, plus exceptionally fine direction by Bruce R. Coleman, add to the layers of the actor’s enthralling turn in The Nance. He plays Chauncey Miles, an aging baggy-pants comic specializing in limp-wristed swish parts. In the last days of burlesque in the 1930s, the “nancy boy” was an archetype in low comedy, squealing double entendres at his onstage straight-man (in the comic, not sexual, sense). The stereotype even spilled over into movies. Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion was the nanciest creature on the yellow brick road.
In The Nance, Chauncey’s stage partner in a dingy odeon on Irving Place is top banana Efram (the wonderfully versatile Bob Hess, with whom Cleveland has often co-starred). They are expert, if weary, stooges shoveling slightly naughty sex jokes at jeering punters waiting to watch strippers twirl their tassels.
Efram: “Well, all right, Nancy Nance, let’s let the singing begin. I brought these here music books.”
Chauncey: “I’m usually more comfortable with a hymn. (To audience) What? What? I like to play with the organ. What? What? I love-love-love when the organ swells? Oh, you brutes!”
Each crude punch line lands with a sharp rim shot from the drummer (Jaime Zolfaghari) in the balcony.
Like the musicals Gypsy and Cabaret and John Osborne’s gritty 1950s play The Entertainer, The Nance finds its merry showfolk in desperate straits. Burlesque, that mix of striptease and bawdy sketches, is dying. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, up for re-election, has called for a crackdown on lewdness, raiding burly-cue houses and jailing nance acts. Public behavior by gay men is under scrutiny, too. Gay bars are shuttered and pickup spots, including theater balconies, monitored. That presents a personal dilemma for Chauncey. It’s fine for him to mince and carry on in costume, “kind of like a Negro doing blackface,” he says. But as a gay man in real life, he has to play it straight.
From the first scene set in an “automat” (a self-serve café that presaged coin-operated snack machines), the playwright builds tension around Chauncey’s fear of being found out. Out cruising, Chauncey is careful to use coded words and discreet gestures. Furtive looks, tipped hats in the wrong direction, at, say, an undercover officer, could mean the pokey (and not the fun kind ... rim shot!).
A handsome young man catches Chauncey’s eye. Ned (played by Dallas theater newcomer Sterling Gafford, a real find) has fled Buffalo, and a wife, to live in Manhattan’s gay subculture. Chauncey thinks he’s “trade” and takes him home for a one-night stand (cue the full frontal). Ned falls in love with the older man, however, and is drawn to the free spirits at the theater. For the first time, Chauncey, a staunchly conservative Republican who despises FDR and “Bolshevik” unions, has to engage in a relationship beyond quick sex. He lets Ned move in, but warns him not to be expressive outside the apartment. “If we’re going to be queers,” Chauncey says, “we have to do it where the normal folk can’t see us.”
The play see-saws between Chauncey and Ned’s turbulent relationship at home and the silly sketches Chauncey and Efram perform in the show-within-the-show. Scenic designer Kevin Brown and lighting designer Jason Foster let the revolving stage at Kalita Humphreys Theater give audiences simultaneous peeks at what’s happening “out front” at the burlesque house and what’s going on behind the curtain. Then the stage turns to reveal Chauncey’s shabby apartment, decorated, as he describes it, like “Anna May Wong’s wet dream.” (Costume designer Suzi Cranford and wig and makeup artist Coy Covington get all the details right. Everyone looks divinely decadent.)
Playwright Beane has written other plays about showbiz (The Little Dog Laughed and his latest, Shows for Days), but for The Nance, which opened on Broadway in 2013, he did meaningful research to craft a well-focused docu-dramedy of a dying era in entertainment history. It’s a look back (with some anger) at a time in gay history, too, when the love that dare not speak its name could not even tip its hat in public without fear of being brutalized. And best of all, it’s a screamingly funny comedy that re-creates some classic burlesque bits, including the old “Niagara Falls” routine (known to some of us from the I Love Lucy era).
At Uptown, there’s so much song and dance, it could almost be classified as a musical. Dallas musician Adam C. Wright has composed period-accurate tunes for seven musical numbers (with lyrics by Beane) hoochied and coochied by a trio of stripping chorines played by Linda Leonard, Sherry Hopkins and Brett Warner, as trashily luscious as Gypsy’s “Gotta Have a Gimmick” gals.
Late in the second act comes the gut-punch that gives The Nance its literary heft. Chauncey, forced to pull the pansy act and perform in more acceptable drag as “Hortense,” delivers one final monologue loaded with filthy zingers. That he does it in disgust, with the pace and gravity of a eulogy — this is Cleveland at his best — makes it even funnier. Laugh at the sad clown one moment; cry for him the next. Stand and applaud for both when the curtain comes down.