The subtly come-hither line goes like this: “Meet me round the corner/in about a half an hour.” It must be chanted with just the right jauntily self-mocking rhythm. And for those in the know — and they were the thinly veiled gay men of late 1930s New York — the meaning was perfectly clear. It was the way to signal an assignation, and, if all went well, it would help the men involved sidestep entrapment by the police or members of the city’s morals squad.
When: Through July 30
Where: Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway
Tickets: $30 – $40
Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission
The line is a crucial refrain in “The Nance,” Douglas Carter Beane’s poignant yet high-spirited, richly period-evocative play-with-music that was first produced on Broadway in 2013 (with Nathan Lane in the title role), and is now receiving a terrific Chicago premiere by Pride Films & Plays. The show expertly captures the on-stage and backstage worlds of burlesque and vaudeville — popular entertainments of the time. More crucially, “The Nance” looks at the painful sexual politics of the time, suggesting both how much things have changed, and how some things (notably political opportunism) have remained the same.
“Nance’ is the offensive slang term (of British origin) used to describe an effeminate male and/or gay man. It also was the term for a campy stock character in vaudeville and burlesque who could be at once subversive (by way of the use of sexually charged double entendres), and ridiculed. On the one hand “the nance” could be wholly self-deprecating, but on the other he was the visible presence of a population that continually had to hide.
The title character in Beane’s play is Chauncey Miles (Vince Kracht), a graying, middle-aged gay comic who is the star of a popular burlesque show at the Irving Place Theatre (stylishly suggested by Jeremy Hollis’ set). His onstage partner, Efram (a droll turn by the malleable Patrick Rybarczyk), is the leading comedian and manager of the theater who plays “the straight man” opposite Chauncey. Working in tandem with the pair are three strippers with winningly different personalities: Sylvie (Melissa Young), the brassy redhead with fervent ties to her union and the Communist party; Joan (Britt-Marie Sivertsen), the balletic blonde glamour girl with the faux-French allure; and Carmen (Steph Vondell), a raven-haired woman with a wild streak. (The actresses are sensational, with spot-on choreography by Nathan Mittleman.)
The production, directed with heart and high energy by John Nasca (who also has designed dozens of fabulous costumes), is richly enhanced by pianist Robert Ollis’ music direction, and the superb work of his onstage band, playing the period-perfect music of composer Glen Kelly.
The show begins with a saucy burlesque number by Sylvie that in many ways sets the tone for this story of dual personality, as she tells the tale of a buttoned-down woman who takes a clue from her sexy man-magnet sister. It then moves on to find Chauncey in one of his offstage haunts — a Horn & Hardart Automat known as a pick-up spot for gay men. He notices a reserved young man at the table beside him and cautiously begins to chat him up, invariably on guard for undercover cops who could haul him in on “deviant behavior” charges. The boyish fellow’s name is Ned (Royan Kent), who’s been homeless since arriving in New York a few days earlier, having fled a misguided marriage that denied his true sexual nature. Chauncey (a fervent Conservative, whose political stance Beane clearly uses to echo a similar contemporary phenomena) explains the “meet me round the corner” ritual that will enable them to meet without being entrapped.
An unexpected love affair will develop, with the romantic Ned (soon impressed into service as an actor) craving monogamy, and the self-punishing Chauncey still on the hunt. But it is events in the wider world that begin to take their toll as Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, caught up in a political campaign, decides to crack down on the gay aspect of the burlesque shows. A raid on the Irving Place Theatre results in Chauncey’s arrest and eventually the closure of burlesque houses.
Chauncey’s heroic qualities manifest themselves when he comes to his own defense at a morals trial, and Kracht nails the scene, with Beane’s bristling writing calling to mind Noel Coward. A failed union walkout (and disgust with those on both sides of the political spectrum), leaves Sylvie and the others cynical. And Kent winningly suggests Ned’s ultimate heartbreak in this play that makes you cheer for all its characters.