We’re far from the glitz of Broadway in Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Nance,” his 1930s-set dramedy about a gay burlesque performer who’s a study in contradictions.

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We’re far from the glitz of Broadway in Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Nance,” his 1930s-set dramedy about a gay burlesque performer who’s a study in contradictions.

Chauncey Miles (Richard Gray) makes his living playing a “nance” in the sketches interspersed between the stripteases — a mincing stereotype who swishes in and takes the others aback with his rampant double entendres (sample: “I love love love when the organ swells!”).

Gray has established himself as one of Seattle’s premier comic performers, and he camps it up with an enthusiasm that reflects Chauncey’s genuine love of the art form, hidebound though it may be.


‘The Nance’

By Douglas Carter Beane. Through Sunday, Nov. 19, ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave SW, Seattle; $19-$40 (206-938-0339 or artswest.org)

In Beane’s thoroughly amiable but schematic script, the irony is made plain: Society has plenty of appetite for an absurd gay stereotype on stage but little tolerance for gay people visibly living out their lives in public.

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In the burlesque hall, Chauncey’s dissatisfaction sits close to the surface, but it’s obscured by the flash of bright lights and the familiarity of the sketches’ groaners. Out in the world, there’s nowhere for the disillusionment to hide.

ArtsWest’s production, directed by artistic director Mathew Wright, sets that tone from the beginning, with the entire first scene bathed in Tristan Roberson’s dirty-dishwater lighting. Gay men have to skulk in the shadows, watchful for police ready to arrest at any sign of a romantic rendezvous. A homeless young man, Ned (Drew Highlands), eats a cup of hot water and ketchup. These are hard times.

Chauncey’s surreptitious pickup of Ned, an upstate transplant who’s recently come out to himself, blossoms into a more serious relationship quickly. Soon, Ned has joined the fold at the Irving Place Theater, where Chauncey plays the foil to Efram’s (Jeff Steitzer) straight man, and three strippers (Ann Cornelius, Jasmine Jean Sim, Diana Cameron McQueen) keep the entertainment lively, weaving in between the audience members seated at cabaret tables in Lex Marcos’ stage set.

Steitzer, with his booming baritone and crack comic timing, is an ideal asset for the show’s sketches, many of which Beane based on historical record. The repetitive scenarios and musty punchlines can’t keep Steitzer and Gray from wringing out the last possible droplets of humor. If the show suddenly shifted to the Steitzer and Gray Variety Hour, no one would complain.

Beane has devised an interesting scenario with “The Nance,” but he hasn’t populated it with very many compelling characters. Any personality trait ascribed to a supporting player only exists to garner a reaction from Chauncey, whom Beane simply layers with more and more paradoxes.

With the government cracking down on burlesque performances, Chauncey finds himself simultaneously defending his conservative ideals and decrying the rise of censorship.

This cognitive dissonance isn’t given much examination in Beane’s script, which adjusts Chauncey’s disposition at will in the second act. But Gray is a performer who makes it all believable in the moment, playing a man for whom the very act of performance is his lifeline.