BWW Review: ArtsWest's THE NANCE Spotlights a Shame in our History with Tragic Beauty and Humor

BWW Review: ArtsWest's THE NANCE Spotlights a Shame in our History with Tragic Beauty and Humor
Richard Gray in The Nance at ArtsWest.
Photo credit: John McLellan

Did you know, Dear Readers, that as recently as the 1930's, gay men could be arrested for meeting in public? Maybe? But did you also know that in New York it became just as unthinkable to portray a gay character on stage? Just one of those shameful points in our history that's beautifully illuminated by Douglas Carter Beane's moving play, "The Nance", currently playing at ArtsWest. And as stunning as the show itself is, this cast makes it shine even more.

Let me explain a little history for you. A "nance" referred to a character in burlesque that was quite effeminate and gay filled with underlying double entendres. Such a character at the Irving Place Theatre is Chauncey Miles (Richard Gray) with his signature sing-song entrance of "Hi! Simply, Hi!" Chauncey packs them into the theater with his comic antics but his routine has also caught the eye of Mayor LaGuardia and his morality war as his people keep shutting down theaters that portray deviants on stage. But Chauncey has another struggle in that he's also quite the Nance in real life, routinely attempting to meet other gay men in select coffee houses or automats without the authorities catching on. It's there he meets Ned (Drew Highlands), a young man who's come to New York with no money in an effort to discover his own sexuality. But when things get too unstable at the theater and too stable at home, Chauncey takes it all too far and threatens to destroy it all.

Beane's play, with its wonderfully rich dialog, does an incredible job of spotlighting not only the history of the era but also the dichotomy of a man who wants to be treated like everyone else but still loves the danger of the forbidden. And Director Mathew Wright has done a great job of not whitewashing that history and keeping the play moving along even in the midst of several cumbersome set changes.

But it's the outstanding cast that truly sells this piece and as led by the formidable Gray they could not be in better hands. Gray, of course, handles the comedy and musical theater aspects of the character with aplomb but also manages a stirring portrayal of a man who cannot allow himself to stay happy. Highlands too is incredible with an honest and endearing portrayal making you on his side from the beginning and making their relationship completely believable. Jeff Steitzer is hilarious as the theater owner and Chauncey's co-star Efram and also brings in some wonderful pathos. And Ann Cornelius, Jasmine Jean Sim, and Diana Cameron McQueen are a delight as the dancers at the club.

This is truly a lovely and heartbreaking play and a production that does it justice. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give ArtsWest's "The Nance" a YAY, Simply, YAY. I've been longing to see this one live since the Broadway production and its subsequent airing on PBS and I could not ask for a better production to bring it to town.

"The Nance" performs at ArtsWest through November 19th. For tickets or information contact the ArtsWest box office at 206-938-0339 or visit them online at

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