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Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The Nance
Vortex Theatre
Review by Stephanie Hainsfurther

Also see Rob's review of Hairspray


Philip Shortell and Hal Simons
Photo by Bob Jesser
It's Pride Month and the Vortex Theatre is flying their rainbow flag in a poignant play about gay life in the 1930s. The Nance is well written, with a flare for comedy and a deep knowledge of the persecution of homosexuals and the reality of lives lived in the shadows.

In New York City in 1937, Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia turned his attention to the 15 or so burlesque theaters, like Minsky's, whose strippers and comedians were already under strictures that seem comical today: females could be topless as long as they did not move, for example. (As my mother-in-law said to me at a topless show in Las Vegas in 1987, "Just pretend they're statues, dear.")

Risqué skits, striptease, and dialog with double meanings were standard burlesque fare. What strait-laced La Guardia found "corrupt," straight-male audiences ate up. But when gay males started showing up and rumors of sexual activity in the balconies reached the mayor's office, the establishment knew precisely whom to blame.

The nance was a stock figure in burlesque, supposedly a straight man acting like a gay man. As such, straight males could laugh openly at the character's foppish, overplayed schtick. In this play, Chauncey Miles (Hal Simons) is a nance who really is homosexual. His act fools no one, least of all himself. He's a gay man who is well aware that society deems him a criminal and that secrecy is his friend. Yet his better angels—or is it his self-destructive tendencies?—prevail. Chauncey can't be anyone other than who he is. When the gay male audience infiltrates the Irving Place Theater, his true self is even more on display.

Chauncey is a rich character filled with contradictions. He's a Republican (big laughs from the audience) who believes that LaGuardia's crusade is just a re-election stunt. He picks up Ned (Ed Chavez) at the Automat, a known hangout for cruisers, but begins a long-term relationship with the young man. Although he argues with his stripper friend Sylvie (Lisa Fenstermacher) about her "Communist" ideas about workers' solidarity, he goes to jail rather than run off the stage during a police raid.

Simons plays the character's anger more than his comic evasions, and has a self awareness (a la Cabaret) and a self loathing that holds at arm's length the affection he gets from Ned and from the theater folk. When he gets out of jail, and his friends dub him a hero, he refuses to accept their easy praise. Even in his struggles, it is hard to love him.

Chavez plays a nuanced Ned, good looking, tender, fun loving, and true. We love to see characters develop as Ned does. And he makes a mean scrambled egg.

The ladies—Sylvie, Joan (Yolanda Luchetti-Knight), and Carmen (Kir Kipness)—are the warmest friends Chauncey will ever have, but they pull out the stops and play it for laughs onstage. Their strips are truly teases, bawdy but sweet. Their personalities shine: Joan is ditzy, socialist Sylvie is idealistic, and as Carmen, Kipness becomes the poster girl for cultural appropriation.

The female comic relief also serves to highlight the glaring double standard: just about anything goes when it's straight sex, but same sex is an abomination.

Philip J. Shortell as Efram, Chauncey's straight man (sorry) on stage, is an all-around showman with a flare for historical characters, most recently as Putti Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank. Efram is a good friend but he doesn't want Chauncey to hug him. All barriers to real affection fall, though, as the Irving Place Theater is shut down and the troupe breaks up. Efram hugs Chauncey with sincere love and regret.

Thanks to director Marty Epstein for his total immersion in and understanding of the world of The Nance, and his mindfulness of the systems that work against anyone deemed and demonized as "different." And to Irving Place Theater drummer Mike Anaya for flawlessly adding to the canned music with his percussive skills.

I have one gripe, admittedly influenced by the lack of air conditioning during act one. This play is too long. I'm going to blame it on the clever but unwieldy kitchen set that had to be brought forward, undraped, the table and chairs set up in front, and then all put back again, countless times during the show. The kitchen scenes are short. But the stage is shallow, and the air conditioner squeaks. Such is community theater. Embrace it.

Through July 3, 2016, Friday-Saturday 7:30 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m.; 2900 Carlisle Blvd. NE, (505) 247-8600, vortexabq.com.


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