By Beki Pineda
THE NANCE. Written by Douglas Carter Beane; directed by Rick Yaconis. Produced by The Edge Theater Company (1560 Teller St., Lakewood) through April 2. Tickets available at 303-232-0363 or www.theedgetheater.com.
Chauncey Miles is a local celebrity—tattered though that honor may be—for his “nance” act at the borough burlesque hall. This act allows him to play a super-effeminate buffoon with great aplomb. His nightly greeting to the audience—“Hi! Simply hi!”—starts the string of off-color jokes and double entendres.
As carefree as he is on stage, Chauncey (Warren Sherrill) is tortured in his private life. He is not only gay on stage, but that is also his much more dangerous role in real life. In an era when such an admission could land you in jail or worse, assignations must be made with extreme caution and decorum. It is this danger, this adrenaline rush, that provides the buzz he seeks.
Unfortunately New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia is in the middle of a “cleanup” campaign in preparation for the 1939 World’s Fair. Things on the street are hotter than ever for gay men, with nightly raids in the theaters and gay meeting places all over town. Chauncey’s life is further complicated when he meets a “country boy” who is exploring the darker desires for the first time. Ned (played by Jihad Milhem) is handsome and sweet and seems to be genuinely fond of Chauncey. In his world of one-night stands and rejections, real affection is terrifying. Now, Chauncey has to deal with bedroom politics as well as city politics.
When you put two consummate performers like Warren Sherrill and John Ashton on the stage together, you are bound to be in for a good time. Sherrill’s gift is that he can subjugate his own personality to the character. When he does a role, you forget what the street Warren looks like in favor of the stage Warren. For this throwback to the vaudeville world of the 1930s, he channels Ed Wynn and Bert Lahr with a broader limp-wristed and raunchy version of what gays were perceived to be like back then. He deftly slides between the public and the private Chauncey. However, in the political world of the ’30s, his small acts of defiance are like the mouse giving the finger as the hawk swoops down.
Ashton’s gift IS his personality and his ability to project it into his roles. In his role as Ephraim, the owner of a rundown theater on its last legs, he is charged with conveying the tough-minded businessman who is caught between a rock and a hard place. His financial bottom line is dropping like the boyfriend’s shoes out the window when the husband comes home. He can’t afford to cut the nance act because it brings in the “boys” who buy tickets to see Chauncey; he can’t get Chauncey to tame his act down a little; and yet he’s going to get shut down if he doesn’t take control of the situation. He too must slide easily between his public Ephraim as he performs on stage in classic burlesque routines such as “Slowly I Turned” and his private Ephraim, who wants to be tougher but can’t quite pull it off.
The other acts at the theater are performed by a trio of singing and dancing darlings (Patty Ionoff, Emily Tuckman and Amy Gray). Homage is paid to the famous stripper Sally Rand of the feather fans and balloon-dance fame. For the most part, however, these girls looked a little too put-together and well costumed to have been in old-time burlesque.
Behind the nicely realized set (designed by Douglas Clarke and built by Jeff Jesmer) hangs the theater’s curtain which, when opened, reveals the living room of Chauncey’s flat. The automat gay gathering place is suggested by a couple of table and chairs—all that is needed.
WOW factor: 8.5