Metro Weekly

‘The Nance’ at 1st Stage: Pansy Division (Review)

Anchored by Michael Russotto’s passionate lead performance, "The Nance" renders a bountiful, bittersweet ode to burlesque.

The Nance: Michael Russotto and Patrick Joy
The Nance: Michael Russotto and Patrick Joy

Two men meet at an automat in Greenwich Village. Seated alone at separate tables, spaced not too far apart, one is eating a sandwich, although, apparently, both men have more than a quick nosh in mind. This little luncheonette, we learn, is a known cruising spot for gay men.

The men who seek men know it, and so do the cops who frequently raid the place, according to the older of the two gentlemen, Chauncey, dynamically portrayed by Michael Russotto in 1st Stage’s moving production of The Nance, directed by Nick Olcott.

With careful discretion, Chauncey arranges an assignation for later with the younger man, Ned, a whippersnapper fresh from Buffalo played with aw-shucks joie de vivre by Patrick Joy.

While an opening scene set at the Irving Place Theatre establishes Douglas Carter Beane’s well-plotted comedy-drama within the world of 1930s burlesque, the automat scene succinctly, incisively characterizes Chauncey and his compromised existence as a practicing homosexual at a time and place where that could easily get you arrested.

It’s also a time when he might happen to get arrested for doing his job as a burlesque performer who specializes in a pansy act, camping it up onstage as the flamboyantly gay stock character known as “the nance.”

The play — a winner of three Tonys in its original Broadway production starring Nathan Lane — finds Chauncey and his fellow artists of the burlesque revue at the Irving Place squarely in the sights of city authorities cracking down on these risqué cabaret showcases for ecdysiasts and vaudeville comedians.

There’s a great montage in Singin’ in the Rain during the “Broadway Melody Ballet,” showing the rise of Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood from burlesque hoofer to vaudeville showman to Broadway headliner. The quality of refinement in Don’s costumes, choreography, and chorus girls steadily sparkles brighter, along with Don’s million-dollar smile as he ascends to the top.

The denizens of The Nance dwell near the bottom of that stairway to paradise, on the seedier side of Manhattan. Olcott’s engaging production captures their low-rent milieu more than credibly, with Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s scenic design facilitating the cast’s fluid movement between the burlesque house’s proscenium stage, and backstage behind the curtain and footlights.

As the Irving Place Theatre’s moderately talented cast of striptease artists, Joan, Carmen, and Sylvie, respectively, Day Ajose, Sally Horton Imbriano, and Natalie Cutcher can occasionally blur the line between their characters’ middling onstage exploits and their own approach to the staging.

Being “unpolished” on purpose is a tricky challenge that the five-piece house band, led by music director Joe Walsh, accomplishes more persuasively. And I swear that’s a compliment.

Cutcher, with slightly more to do as card-carrying Communist Sylvie, hits her dramatic notes gracefully. And Michael Innocenti delivers polish from top to bottom, portraying the revue’s gruff impresario and host Efram with dashes of the era’s Joe E. Brown and Jimmy Durante.

Efram and that old spiced ham Chauncey, a star on this circuit, pair up for several chuckle-worthy, and a few intentionally groan-inducing, comedy routines that likewise capture the rhythm and blues of burlesque. “Is that Hortense?” “No, she looks relaxed to me.” Innocenti and Russotto, which actually does sound like a comedy team, generally ace the timing.

Russotto generally aces the whole thing, nailing the nance character, and rendering a moving portrait of the internalized homophobia holding Chauncey back from the happiness he could enjoy with Ned.

Joy is more convincing playing Ned’s earlier mode of innocence than in conveying the layers of grit the kid gains after he moves in with Chauncey, and takes a part in the show at the Irving Place. But together, they’re a compelling couple, under threat from their own demons, and from forces led by New York Mayor LaGuardia’s henchman Paul Moss shutting down nance acts like drag queens in Tennessee.

The script suggests that real-life figure, and bachelor, Moss might have been another Roy Cohn before Roy Cohn, i.e., a self-hating queen who wielded his power to make more liberated queer folks suffer. Who would want to be remembered for that? This touching slice of queer history, rather, would remember those rebels and allies who defied the Mosses and Cohns to eke out some dear space for themselves in a hostile world.

The Nance (★★★★☆) runs through April 21 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road in Tysons, Va.

Tickets are $15 to $55.

Call 703-854-1856, or visit

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