Chicago Theatre Review
Meet Me ‘Round the Corner in a Half an Hour
The Nance – Pride Films and Plays
Ned is a good-looking, down on his luck young man sitting alone at a table in a Greenwich Village automat. The nicely-groomed middle age gentleman at the table next to him is Chauncey Miles, whom we learn is a burlesque comic at the Irving Place Theater. Chauncey’s innocently reading his newspaper and lingering over the remains of his uneaten sandwich when he notices that the younger man is dining on a cup of makeshift soup that he’s concocted from ketchup and hot water. Moved by compassion and an attraction to the younger man’s physique, he offers the guy half of his sandwich. But, he warns the young man, be discreet because fraternizing with other men in 1937 at this automat could result in both of them being arrested.
Chauncey hides a dime under the sandwich plate before he slides it over to the hungry young man. He instructs him that, after he’s eaten and if he’s interested, Ned can go to a nearby newsstand, purchase a paper and wait for Chauncey to drop by. Then, the two of them can retire to Chauncey’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen for the night, a place he humorously refers to as “Anna May Wong’s wet dream.” Ned accepts Chauncey’s kind attention and agrees to eventually move in, “only until I’ve found a job and a place of my own,” the young man insists. But, despite leaving behind a loveless marriage in Buffalo, Ned falls in love with this kindly, eloquent comic actor and they become a couple.
Chauncey ironically makes his living as a “nance,” a comedian who performs in burlesque skits as a cartoonish parody of an effeminate gay man. The irony is that, while most actors who play this stock comic role are straight, Chauncey is actually portraying an outlandish version of himself. With his effervescent energy, mincing steps, limp wrists and a lisping, high-pitched voice, Chauncey becomes the cruel brunt of every joke. His signature greeting of girlish glee that opens each skit with “Hi, simply hi,” as well as a litany of naughty double-entendres, all elicit gales of laughter from the crowd. Usually working in tandem with his acting partner, Efram, the chemistry unexpectedly shifts when one of the other actors suddenly leaves for another show. In a desperate move, Ned is welcomed into the cast to play the other straight man.
Backstage, and during social gatherings, Chauncey, Ned, Efram, along with Sylvie, Joan and Carmen, the three lovely strippers who shake things up at the Irving Place Theater, become a supportive, extended family. However, tension begins to build at home when, after each show, Chauncey realizes he no longer is free to hunt for fresh trade. Then Mayor LaGuardia begins savagely cracking down on indecency, in his attempt to clean up the city before hosting the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Suddenly burlesque houses are being censored for what the mayor considers deviant, immoral behavior. Paul Moss, the prudish commissioner of licenses, is sent to every theater to spy on the performers and make any arrests that he deems necessary. This marks the beginning of the end of burlesque.
Talented director and gifted Jeff Award-winning costumer John Nasca guides this excellent play, beautifully accommodating the limitations of this intimate storefront venue. Douglas Carter Beane’s comic adult drama, peppered with heartache and sadness, is an homage to a bygone era. It’s a love letter, both to an old-fashioned, beloved form of live entertainment, as well as to the evolution of the gay character in society. While Beane’s 2013 play isn’t perfect, it comes very close. The original Lincoln Center Theater production won three Tony Awards, including one for Nathan Lane, in the title role. The play was also recorded for the PBS series, “Live From Lincoln Center,” generating an even larger audience.
In this Chicago premiere, accomplished veteran actor Vince Kracht thoroughly embodies the role of Chauncey Miles. This actor skillfully accomplishes a most challenging feat: he’s created two distinct characterizations. One, is the sometimes caring, often sarcastic, cynical gay actor; the other, is the whimsical, ridiculously effeminate stock burlesque character he plays onstage, the true star of the Irving Place Theater. His performance stands alone, the true test of a fine actor, and the audience eagerly awaits his every new moment on stage.
Kracht shares the stage with five other, equally excellent actors. Royen Kent, so terrific in Underscore Theatre’s recent “My Name is Annie King,” is heartbreaking as Ned. Baring his body and soul in this demanding part, Kent is trusting and sensitive, caring and vulnerable in his relationship with this older, wiser man. There’s never a false moment in this young actor’s portrayal and it’s his honest performance that will connect with every theatergoer.
As Efram, Chauncey’s Jewish, straight scene partner and the manager of the theater, Patrick Rybarczyk creates a strong, calming contrast to Kracht’s bouncing, bubbly Chauncey. The three strippers are led by the exquisite Melissa Young as a brassy, young, Sophie Tucker-inspired entertainer named Sylvie. Besides being a standout in every musical number, Ms. Young is terrific as Chauncey’s card-carrying Communist colleague and his closest crony. Gorgeous Britt-Marie Sivertsen is poetry in motion as the vivacious Joan, a blonde bombshell with all the right moves, and one sensuous fan dancer; and Steph Vondell is the saucy Carmen, the Latina singer/dancer who makes the stage shake with her sexy shimmying.
The technical support for this show is first-rate. Jeremy Hollis has nicely adapted the original turntable scenic design used in the Broadway production, creating a stage-within-a-stage, a behind the scenes staircase to the dressing rooms, as well as just a suggestion of the automat and Chauncey’s modest apartment. Each locale is enhanced by G. “Max” Maxin’s colorful lighting and moving proscenium projections. John Nasca has once again outdone himself with a vast array of gorgeous, fringed and beaded period costumes, while Brian Estep completes the effect with his stylish hair and makeup designs.
John Nasca is the perfect choice to direct Douglas Carter Beane’s glitzy, sadly comic drama. This is, after all, the director’s specialty: period plays and musicals that offer glimpses of backstage drama and insight into a by-gone era. It’s actually Beane’s second showbiz-based drama, along with his critically acclaimed “The Little Dog Laughed.” Ably assisted by musical director Robert Ollis, and his brassy quartet of backstage musicians, and assistant director Nathan Mittleman, particularly for his sexy striptacular choreography, this is a very entertaining production. Pride Films & Plays has an important story to share that offers both laughter and tears on a warm summer night. So, head over to North Broadway and, as they say in the play, “Meet me ‘round the corner, in a half an hour!”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 29-July 30 by Pride Films & Plays at the Broadway Theatre of the Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 800-737-0984 or by going to www.pridefilmsandplays.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.