by Hugh Hunter
Welcome to the Irving Place Theater. In “The Nance” (2013) by Douglas Carter Beane, now running at Stagecrafters, it is the late 1930s in New York City, and in the heart of the Great Depression naughty entertainers cheer up dejected audiences.
Three leggy strip teasers lift your spirits: Sylvie (Ashley Elizabeth Davis), Joan (Holly Heneks) and Carmen (Samantha Sherwood). With lots of help from choreographer Leah Holleran and costumes designers Jen Allegra and Susan Gibbons, their dance routines have genuine cabaret charm.
This trio by themselves are enough to keep you in your seats. Then Chauncey Miles commands the spotlight with his comical “pansy act.” Rusty Flounders is “Nance” Chauncey, and with help from straight-man Efram (Lenny Grossman), Flounders delights you all night with bawdy, limp-wristed double- entendres. (Ed. Note: “Nance” was a contemptuous term used to refer to a male homosexual.)
But the personal life of these performers is more grim, and the play bounces back and forth between burlesque routines and off-stage episodes. The focus is on Chauncey, whom we meet in an automat pickup joint, where he uses a different form of double-entendre, code language to dodge police on the lookout for men regarded as “sexual deviants.”
The core story is Chauncey’s love affair with a young man, Ned, played with unalloyed ardor by Joe Fanelli. Ned wants a settled love relationship. But Chauncey cannot give up the excitement of dangerous sex encounters, and you come to see the real-life Chauncey as more vexed and pitiable than his stage persona.
The saving grace of “The Nance” is its many burlesque routines, so joyously reimagined by director Barbara D. Mills and her spirited crew. You never tire of watching her chorines strut their stuff in shifting guises, and Chauncey is always an arresting presence. Flounders’ performance comes to a head in his final show, where his cross-dressed Hortense is so witty and beaten down.
But in Beane’s script, the off-stage Chauncey does not keep pace. While the character has gratuitous ticks and idiosyncrasies, like his oddball support for the Republican party that persecutes him, Chauncey is simply an irreparable, randy lad.
We never see Chauncey’s nemesis, Fiorello La Guardia, on crusade to shut down burlesque. The mayor is another one-note piano. (The real La Guardia was more complex.) And Beane fails to fruitfully complicate the plot with the resentments of “legitimate” theater, after Minsky moved burlesque from the Lower East Side to Broadway in 1931.
Is “The Nance” fun? Sure. Good burlesque is always fun, and the Stagecrafters’ production is full of life. The show also works as a period piece, capturing the dying world of burlesque in the New York City of the ‘30s. But Beane’s off-stage events do not enlarge this world. They border on a slice-of-life approach that curiously resembles burlesque, a collection of skits entertaining in themselves but with little involving drama.
Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “The Nance” will run through Dec 9. Tickets available at 215-247-8881 or thestagecrafters.org