By Bryson David Hoff
It’s difficult to predict the post-Broadway legacy of a star vehicle.
Too often a play with a juicy role that, either by design or serendipity, fits its originator so perfectly that an audience cannot imagine another actor embodying it fails to gain regional traction simply because of the difficulty in living up to that legacy. Thankfully, that is not the case in PRIDE Films and Play’s Chicago premiere of Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance.
The action takes place in 1937 Manhattan, following the life of comedian Chauncey Miles (Vince Kracht), who performs sketches at a burlesque theatre in between striptease numbers. His specialty is a stock character called “the Nance” characterized by over-the-top effeminacy and rapid-fire double entendre. However, with Mayor La Guardia’s crackdown on “moral indecency,” Miles finds himself torn between his own Republicanism and the sudden scrutiny placed on him and his profession, due in no small part to the fact that he is a homosexual in real life as well as on the stage.
Not so much a musical as a “play with music,” the piece is structured much like an actual burlesque with plot scenes interspersed with song and dance numbers and vaudeville sketches, including a brilliantly staged fan-dance and a variation on the classic “Slowly I Turn” routine. This piece of stylization not only allows the cast of six performers to show off a wider array of talents than if the whole thing was drawing-room realism, but also effectively conveys to the audience how burlesque works: a necessity in a time where the art form is limited to a few specialty companies as opposed to its then-ubiquity.
Also aiding the setting of the scene is scenic designer Jeremy Hollis’s use of the company’s newly christened Pride Arts Center, salvaged from the downfall of Profiles Theatre. Hollis makes expert use of the black box space to illustrate at a glance not only what burlesque theatres in general are like, but what this one in particular is like: shabby, but well-maintained. The characters do not inhabit the glitz-and-glamour echelon of show business, but the blue-collar, work-a-day world of the journeyman. His ability to convey this so comfortably within the aesthetic of Chicago’s storefront theatres makes one wonder whether this script was always more suited for this kind of venue than it ever was for a Broadway stage.
However, as it always does, the success of the production falls on the performances, which are universally praiseworthy. Britt-Marie Sivertsen, Steph Vondell, and Melissa Young as the theatre’s trio of striptease artists have both a comic and dramatic rapport that makes believing that their characters have been working together for years easily believable. Patrick Rybarczyk, who plays the club’s manager and straight-man (in both senses of the word) to Chauncey’s Nance, seems to have stepped directly out of the era and absolutely crushes his Vaudeville routines with Kracht. Royen Kent’s turn as Ned, Chauncey’s young lover who is in the process of coming to terms with his sexual identity is beautifully nuanced and full of subtleties that bring depth to what could easily be a flat, sounding-board of a character in less capable hands.
But, as hinted at in the opening of this review, the most skilled ensemble would be pointless without the right actor in the title role, played by Nathan Lane in the original Broadway cast and garnering him a Tony nomination in the process. Thankfully, Vince Kracht is not only equal to the task; he positively soars, embodying the contradictory central figure of the play with masterful ease. His Chauncey is at turns egotistical, self-loathing, optimistic, embittered, clever, stubborn, and at all turns sharp-tongued and terminally witty. Rather than try to ape Lane’s distinctive mannerisms, Kracht seems to have drawn his inspiration from Oscar Wilde and it works spectacularly. His Chauncey is a completely human character that is at once sympathetic yet deeply, inexcusably flawed.
This contradictory personality in the character was derided by some critics of the original production as being indicative of a not-quite-baked script. However, that seems to be the entire point of the play, dealing as it does with issues of free speech, otherness, politics and identity. These are questions without easy answers in reality, whether in the New Deal-era or today, and so to give them to the characters in this play would be disingenuous.
In a strange way, The Nance is itself like an old-fashioned striptease: it gives the audience just a hint at the goods and leaves it to their minds to work out the conclusion.
Pride Films and Plays presents “The Nance” through August 13 at The Pride Arts Center, 3149 N Broadway, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.