Reviewed by George Basler
The Nance, which opened this past weekend (Sept. 8-10) at KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton, is an extremely funny send-up of old-fashioned burlesque shows, filled with routines that were old when your grandfather was in knickers.
The play is also a touchingly sad character study as the life of its main character crumbles through self-delusion and self-loathing.
These two aspects may seem an odd combination — like mixing cherry soda with vinegar — but a superb cast pulls it off in a terrific production that is both laugh-out-loud funny and deeply poignant.
The production is the result of a collaboration between KNOW Theatre, which specializes in provocative, cutting edge plays, and SRO Productions III, another venerable local theater company known for its first-rate productions of crowd-pleasing musicals.
Such a collaborative effort — the first of its kind — works so well that it’s a wonder why it hasn’t been thought of before. The cross-pollination also provides a model for other local theater companies that may be looking to do work that is fresh and different.
The Nance’s action takes place in 1937 when New York City officials are cracking down on burlesque — a theatrical form that mixes slapstick comedy with strip tease — in advance of the 1939 World’s Fair.
The main character is Chauncey Miles, the headliner in a Lower East Side burlesque house. Chauncey, in the parlance of burlesque, is “a nance,” a mincing, effeminate sketch player who traffics in bawdy double entendres.
There’s a twist, though. While straight men normally played “nances,” Chauncey is a closeted gay man whose wit and flippant attitude disguise a loneliness and self-loathing that lead to tragic consequences.
Douglas Carter Beane’s strong play unfolds skillfully through a series of on-stage numbers and offstage scenes that take place in Chauncey’s apartment, the backstage of the theater and an Automat that in the bad old days was a clandestine gay hook-up spot.
The show provided a plum role for Broadway superstar Nathan Lane back in 2013. So, Tim Gleason, KNOW’s executive and artistic director, is taking on a daunting task in recreating the role in KNOW’s production.
Gleason rises to the challenge. His performance is nothing short of memorable.
Gleason catches Chauncey’s surface wit. He is also suitably swishy in the classic burlesque sketches that are deeply offensive by today’s standards but are still pretty darn funny.
More importantly, Gleason digs deeply into the character’s many layers as he exposes a man whose personal flaws make him incapable of accepting love when it’s offered to him. The performance is haunting and heartbreaking.
Particularly poignant are The Nance’s last scenes when Chauncey’s world unravels, and he seems incapable of rescuing himself. In the striking penultimate scene, Gleason masterfully does a drag queen sketch that mixes rancid humor with a sense of bitterness and regret. The way Gleason plays it, it’s almost like a corpse working to get laughs on stage.
The rest of the cast is outstanding as well. Nick DeLucia gives a blustering and effective performance as Efram, the owner of the burlesque house who doubles as Chauncey’s on-stage partner. The character’s crude humor and attitudes are certainly problematic by today’s standards, but he’s essentially a decent guy. DeLucia plays that well.
Zachary Chastain does a good job as Chauncey’s love interest, a young man he meets in the Automat. During the play, the character evolves from a callow youth to a self-assured man who accurately pinpoints Chauncey’s recklessness. The role is a tough one to play because, frankly, the character is undeveloped and too good to be true. But Chastain makes him believable.
Anne Fabiano, Tiffany Zhingoor and Caitlin McNichol enliven the proceedings as three strippers: a ditsy blond, a Latin-kitsch spitfire and a politically committed radical.
McNichols’s role is the most multi-dimensional, and she makes the most of it. The character is a committed Communist, and her verbal jousting with Chauncey, a self-proclaimed conservative Republican, are some of the best moments in the show.
In the end, the character sees her own illusions — in this case, political illusions — shattered. McNichol plays the realization well.
Scott Fisher’s direction is absolutely first rate. It’s no small task. KNOW Theatre’s productions are normally confined to a single set in the company’s intimate downtown setting. The Nance, by contrast, uses four distinct sets as the action moves back and forth between the seedy burlesque house and outside world. Fisher must move the characters through the four sets, and he does so effectively.
Fisher also deserves credit for helping to develop the incidental music that is an essential element in The Nance. As reported by Chris Kocher in the Press & Sun-Bulletin, Fisher called in a favor from Kris Gilbert, a music teacher at Whitney Point High School who also serves as the music director at the Endicott Performing Arts Center. Gilbert, in turn, created musical tracks that capture the atmosphere of a burlesque house of 80 years ago.
Credit also goes to Joe Brofcak and Lynette Daniels who do the lighting and sound, and Gene Czebiniak and Pat and Frank Morrissey. who put together the evocative sets.
The Nance provides a glimpse into a bygone era and one man’s tortured psyche. It’s a terrific show.
IF YOU GO: KNOW Theatre and SRO Productions III will present The Nance through Sept. 24 at KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 ($18 for seniors and $15 for students). Go online to www.knowtheatre.org, or call 724-4341.
There will also be a pay-what-you-can performance at 8 p.m. tomorrow (Thursday, Sept. 14).