What a sad and shameful society we can be when we put our minds to it. And the fact that we find humor and love in the dirty little allies where we are forced to hide reminds us that hope is always sprouting no matter the depth of the layer of volcanic ash trying to smother it.
It’s 1937 in New York, and being gay is illegal, period! How to figure out where the boys can meet the boys takes some doing. One place is the automat (food not laundry) where we meet Chauncey Miles (Nathan Lane) who is whiling away his time pretending to read Variety and waiting for Mr. Right or at least Mr. Alrighty to come along. The police are there of course because that is what the Vice Squad is for – undercover spying to keep the streets free from perverts and the country safe from – whatever.
Into this very same establishment comes young and earnest and attractive Ned (Jonny Orsini) from Upstate. Ned has left his wife and is following his heart, which seems to be located in his lower regions. Ned and Chauncey do the dance of not talking while talking, and soon we are seeing “the next morning” conversation. Turns out this Ned guy is sincere and not a dope, and Chauncey has been looking for love for a long, long time. The two fall into a relationship like kids leaping into a swimming hole.
On the professional side of Chauncey’s life we are treated (and I do mean treated) to a smorgasbord of scenes backstage and front of house of the Irving Place Theatre. This is a superb bunch of actors: Jenni Barber (Joan), Andréa Burns (Carmen), Cady Huffman (Sylvie), Mylinda Hull (Rose), Geoffrey Allen Murphy (Charlie), and Lewis J. Stadlen (Efram). They knit their story together as we watch, stage acts and backstage banter, performance and politics (the unions were looking for footing), and together they all face the coming doom – burlesque is on its last spindly legs. But while it still stands it is Chauncey Miles that takes center stage as “The Nance” – and absurdly affected gay character that sports limp wrists and has a supply of comebacks a mile long.
While the Great Nothing is creeping closer and closer to burlesque, there is also the matter of the Morals laws under Laguardia’s reign. Then there’s the Minsky’s stealing talent (not Chauncey’s) from the Irving. Through all of this, Lane maintains a brilliant and delicate balance, moving back and forth among the many roles that Chauncey has assigned himself in order to survive. While he plays a Nance on stage, he knows that being “out” will only get him, and anyone connected with him, tossed into jail. And that would lead to job loss, and that would lead to being put out on the street. This is a life and death form of existence. While the Second World War was getting under way over there, we had our own home grown kind of fascism over here.
This is a no-win situation for everyone in this story. But the deal is that they don’t realize it – well Chauncey does but hopes he is wrong – so they carry on with their lives. In doing so they become the anonymous shoulders on which all of us stand. These are heroes whose stories it is important to uncover. Douglas Carter Beane does us all a service to put the spotlight on them and their time.
This is a fine, fine production of a tale we would rather not remember.
"Strained if heartfelt."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Refreshingly original play."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"It all feels a little too clean-cut."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Yin-and-yang mix of low comedy and high tragedy, the personal and the political, never meshes."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
"A great showcase for the performing skills of Nathan Lane. Beyond that, things get a little murky."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"A flawed yet rich play that offers a great deal of heartbreak and hilarity."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"Whatever the flaws of the play, however, O’Brien’s hand-crafted production is never less than absorbing, and the performances are terrific. "
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"Positioned precisely at this intersection of comedy and pain."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...