It's tough to watch talented people fall short of their potential.
This was the experience of watching the Subversive Theatre Collective's grueling production of "The Nance," Douglas Carter Beane's look at sexual and social hypocrisy in 1930s burlesque, unfold Thursday night on the stage of the Manny Fried Playhouse.
To be sure, this production, directed by Kurt Schneiderman and starring Christopher Standart and Michael Seitz, brims with talent.
Schneiderman, who founded Subversive, has a knack for finding smart plays that resonate with his company's progressive mission and with the questions burning in the minds of contemporary theatergoers. Standart is a comic actor par excellence with true style and a gift for slicing to the emotional core of a scene. Seitz, who honed his once-rough acting chops to a fine point with Buffalo United Artists, has become a sensitive and gifted actor.
But because of a confluence of unfortunate factors, from wildly uneven performances to awkward staging and an almost unbearably stilted pace, very little of this talent shone through on opening night. The advertised running time of just over two hours stretched to more than three hours on opening night.
Beane's 2013 play, the Broadway version of which featured Nathan Lane in the title role, is named after a stock character who often appeared in burlesque and vaudeville bits. The "nance act," a relic of the era, featured a theatrically effeminate man making light of his own sexuality with a series of ham-fisted jokes and double entendres to amuse the audience between strip-teases.
In many ways, Beane's idea -- to imagine and deploy the real-life struggles of the men who played these characters as a commentary on the hypocrisies of the era -- is better than his follow-through. Beane's writing is smart, and his main character Chauncey Miles (Standart) is a memorable invention along the lines of Albin from "La Cage aux Folles." But his writing sometimes becomes maudlin to the detriment of its cutting power and to these performers, who take the playwright's overwritten outrages to cringe-inducing, soap-operatic depths.
Like many, though certainly not all Subversive productions, "The Nance" is deeply under-rehearsed. Actors unintentionally speak over one another in some spots and search in vain to remember dialogue in others, creating a confusing experience for theatergoers desperate to follow the action.
It's clear that many members of the cast are not entirely familiar with the blocking, which results in some near-collisions as they exit and enter the small stage. The intimacy of the space, which is not efficiently used by set designer Christopher Wilson, amplifies the choreographic shortcomings and mistakes that appear throughout the show.
Standart and Seitz, two talented Buffalo performers capable of communicating deep feeling and humor, are adrift in this production. As Miles, the flamboyant title character, Standart seems to float in and out of focus, searching in vain for his lines on the floor or ceiling in some scenes and effortlessly issuing cutting repartee in others.
Seitz, as Miles' more straight-laced and optimistic boyfriend Ned, struggles to achieve emotional authenticity. What his performance lacks in subtlety, he attempts to make up for in bluster. But the bargain doesn't work out.
Subversive Theatre is an essential Buffalo company. Schneiderman is an essential Buffalo director who has cast this play with talented actors. But every outfit has its limits. And with "The Nance," Subversive has clearly bit off a lot more than it can chew.
1.5 stars (out of four)
Runs through March 28 in the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave. Tickets are $25 to $30. Call 462-5549 or visit subversivetheatre.org.