Dallas — In the opening scene of The Nance, Douglas Carter Beane’s 2013 Tony Award-winning play receiving its regional premiere at Uptown Players, Chauncey Miles (versatile B. J. Cleveland in an amazing performance), a middle-aged gay comic playing a flaming gay man—a “nance,” as in “nancy boy”—for laughs, is reading Variety at a Greenwich Village Automat where boys meet boys.
Chauncey offers an obviously hungry young man named Ned (virile, fresh-faced Sterling Gafford) half his ham sandwich. Cleveland’s smile is inviting as Chauncey says, “I’m an actor, so that could be considered an act of cannibalism.” Word is out that Republican Mayor La Guardia is raiding places like the “oh-so-gay corral,” so Chauncey’s careful about pick-up tactics in “these very arresting times.”
Funny and brave, the scene instantly lands us in the terrifying and accepted strictures in 1937 of being a homosexual, even in a sophisticated urban culture. The role of a gay man playing an effeminate gay man in a 1930s burlesque house was written for Broadway star Nathan Lane, and based on a brazenly open gay man with a popular “pansy act” of the era. Director Bruce R. Coleman steers this hilarious and emotionally loaded play with smooth certainty, buoyed up by a powerhouse ensemble of three men and three women who sing, dance, plead, and clown their way into our hearts.
Throughout the show, the scenes alternate between the stage sketches and the real lives of Chauncey and his fellow performers. Certainly, Chauncey is intensely aware of every eyebrow lift and knowing wink in his stage personae, as he camps up the nanciness. Off stage, he acts as straight as he can. The pretense never stops. Chauncey’s personal life, as he summarizes it in euphemism, is a series of one-night stands often with curious straight men, pursued as much for the thrilling potential danger of being mugged or jailed as for the sex. A defiant Republican, he’s convinced the mayor is just making pre-election noise about shutting down burlesque, and refuses to acknowledge that right-wingers hate homosexuals.
Bouncing and bubbling in his pansy persona, or stepping front and center in court to argue with dignity the case for the double-entendre sketch in burlesque, Cleveland is compelling. He can roll his eyes, drop a limp wrist and make you laugh, as his fans have long known. (He also is a natural for roles that Nathan Lane has played; Cleveland's last triumph on the Uptown stage was in The Producers.) But as Chauncey, he can make you cry with him in a sudden overwhelming moment of real grief in mid-drag, complete with flowery silk dress and brightly rouged cheeks. Cleveland, to summarize, acts his ass off all night in this show, and creates a loveable, believable and conflicted character.
Gafford’s manly Ned seems too good to be true at first, but his sincere love for Chauncey radiates on his face and in his tender embrace of his wary partner. Their love story is made real and wrenching because we feel Ned’s self-awareness and pain as much as Chauncey’s emotional isolation. Their morning-after scene, with Ned in the bathtub, reveals much about both characters—and that’s not a reference to the full-frontal nudity.
But before you can say ba-da-boom, the revolving stage on the Kalita Humphreys Theater has shifted scenes in Kevin Brown’s richly detailed set design. We’re at the Irving Place burlesque house, and Chauncey and head comedian Efram (tall, lanky Bob Hess, elegantly in command, even in clown plaid) are doing a soft shoe and singing, “Everybody’s Looking for Love.” Raunchy double-entendres go by about the policeman’s ball and being “screw-tinized.” My favorite double entendre involves Chauncey’s classic drag bit of an aging prostitute named Hortense. The burlesque jokes are priceless, and the cast lands each one with zing-on comic timing.
Together with three gloriously shameless strippers, the comics bump and grind and mince their way through a series of songs and sketches, directly reflecting what’s happening in the frayed reality of their lives, as La Guardia not only persecutes homosexuals, but threatens to shut down burlesque, the genre that defines all the characters professionally—and pays their rent.
Beautiful, effervescent Linda Leonard is a touching pal to Chauncey as Sylvie, and dynamite in the song and dance numbers. Brett Warner is a sexy, funny Carmen, a stripper specializing in fake South American accents, pouring it on in “La Cucaracha,” and Sherry Hopkins is the lovable dumb blonde. All the women execute Kelly McCain’s playfully bawdy, high-kicking choreography with limber enthusiasm.
The actresses look fabulous in Suzi Cranford’s imaginative sexy costumes that include everything from a balloon dress (covered in actual balloons) to wonderful period coats and shoes when they’re not performing. Coy Covington’s gorgeous wigs and actor-magic makeup adds at least another inch of glamour to a glittering show. The men look good too—and Cranford’s costumes help us shift from stage to life with these quick-change artists.
Lyrics to all the songs in the show’s sketches come with the script to The Nance, and the show won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music in a Play, a score that didn’t come with the package. Consequently, Coleman and company teamed up with local composer Adam C. Wright, who wrote all the tunes for the songs and the evocative incidental music in the play. The recorded score works perfectly, and a live drummer furnishes the drum rolls from the wings.
The seamless and swift weaving together of stage numbers and the helter-skelter emotional lives of the characters makes the show move fast, even though it runs just over two hours, plus an intermission.
Add another cymbal-rolling, hand-clapping hit to Uptown Players’ accelerating list of exhilarating theater.