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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

The Nance
PBS and YouTube   Autumn 2020

Douglas Carter Boone's comedy was on Broadway in 2013 and recorded for America's PBS network.

It is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it sort of play, calling for us to be offended by a particular type of social prejudice while inviting us to indulge in it for our enjoyment. The enjoyment part is so much fun that it may not be until late in the show that you begin to feel uneasy about your laughter.

Nathan Lane plays Chauncey, a very camp homosexual in 1930s New York who works as a burlesque comic in the slapstick sketches that fill the spaces between strippers. His speciality is the 'nance,' the even-more-wildly camp sissy character who ignores the girls and leers at the boys ('Kind of like a Negro doing blackface,' he admits).

Now, Nathan Lane is a comic actor who works in broad strokes and big effects think of the musical and film of The Producers so the opportunity to play two different levels of outrageous camp is meat and drink to him. (I have to acknowledge that he is also an acquired taste. A little of him goes a long way, and there is a lot of him here. If your capacity for over-the-top comic acting is limited, this show may not be for you.)

The play opens with Chauncey hooking up with Ned, a newcomer to town, at a gay pick-up spot. The next morning they are both surprised as what they expected to be a one-night stand turns into an ongoing and sincere love affair. Life seems quite happy until city authorities decide to close down the burlesque houses (evidently more offended by the double-entendre comedy than the naked girls).

Despite fighting eloquently for the right to be bawdy, Chauncey faces the realisation that he has internalised some of society's condemnation of him, and that he can't really believe himself worthy of success or Ned's love.

What makes this dramatically problematical is that while gearing us up to be outraged by society's homophobia, the play has been inviting us to laugh at not with both Chauncey and his nance character.

The plot scenes alternate with excerpts from the onstage comic acts, where Chauncey-as-nance is a deliberately offensive parody of a gay man, presented for our ridicule and enjoyment. And such are the skills of both playwright, capturing the sound and spirit of burlesque comedy, and of Nathan Lane, playing the parody without reserve, that we do enjoy these sequences, however un-PC they are.

(Playwright Boone borrows openly from actual burlesque routines there's a whole bit taken word-for-word from Abbott and Costello and you'd have to work hard to resist such chestnuts as 'Your Honour' 'I'd like to be on her.' or the Palaeolithic gag whose set-up is 'Is that Hortense?')

The burlesque scenes are also used quite effectively as choric commentary on the plot, in the manner of the songs in Cabaret the meeting of Chauncey and Ned is followed by a picking-up-a-girl sketch, the police raid on the theatre by a comic courtroom sketch, the strains on Chauncey and Ned's relationship by a bickering couple, and so on.

Nathan Lane is Nathan Lane. Jonny Orsini is pretty much invisible as Ned, though Lewis J. Stadlen is strong as the (pun unavoidable) straight man in the comic act, and Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber and Andra Burns provide support as stripper/actress/friends.

There's a lot to enjoy in The Nance, but eventually being made to feel guilty about enjoying it does spoil some of the fun.

Gerald Berkowitz
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Review of The Nance 2020