The “double bind” of being gay in an oppressive climate of prejudice against gays and, yet, choosing to turn down any hope of redemption with a loving partner (or a political party that does not create punitive laws) delineates the tragedy of Chauncey Miles–the protagonist of the cunningly written and subversive play The Nance, currently playing at The Little Theatre of Alexandria.
Playwright Douglas Carter Beane has written a richly resonant and multi-layered play full of serious issues that are heartbreakingly poignant yet made bearable by the comic veneer of fast-paced burlesque comedy and musical sketches augmented with the acerbic wit of the main character.
The play’s action occurs in the late 1930s as the lingering effects of the Great Depression and the opening rumblings of what was soon to become World War II, along with the decline of burlesque, all combine to create a very tense and polarized period in history.
This external misery is reflected by the internal emotional and psychological misery of the “Nance” character Chauncey Miles (played brilliantly by actor Chuck Dluhy). The “Nance” refers to the campy and stereotyped homosexual in musical vaudeville parodies (usually played by a straight man). Yet, in Beane’s continually surprising writing, this “Nance” onstage is a homosexual in real life.
The tragic “no-win” nature of this play is that our protagonist is warned by the manager of the stage company, Efram (hilariously evoked by actor Jack B. Stein) not to appear too gay in his lifestyle off the stage and, concurrently, not to act “too gay” or gay at all (drag is an acceptable substitute) onstage as well. The vice squad is continually monitoring and closing theaters.
Director Frank D. Shutts II has a keen professional eye and he keeps the paradoxes, comic sketches, societal pressures, and pathos of this complex play adroitly intermingled with finesse and directorial aplomb.
Director Shutts II and his very well-chosen cast have a large and daunting theatrical juggling act on their hands as they must convey the “play (or sketch) within a play” concept of such other great theatrical works such as Gypsy and 42nd Street. In this play, the sketches in the burlesque shows mirror the anxieties, harassment, and vulnerability that the main character often feels in his mind.
As the sketches and musical numbers become more fast-paced and frenetic, so also does the emotional well-being of the main character (Chauncey Miles, the “Nance”) wear down and become fragmented. Towards the end of the play, actor Chuck Dluhy masterfully delivers two searing monologues that practically show him on the verge of an incipient nervous breakdown.
Such is Dluhy’s talent that he evokes laughs as well as tears with his intricate acting skills. Dluhy superbly conveys the self-loathing and self-destructiveness often seen in characters of literature and theatre (such as the eldest son and the mother in Long Day’s Journey into Night) yet I always felt that Dluhy had created a totally authentic interpretation that made me care intensely about his well-being amidst the self-hatred.
Douglas Carter Beane’s writing skill is so adept and real that art imitates life while life imitates art until one aspect is almost totally indistinguishable from the other. I would consider this play to capture the self-loathing of the homosexual even more severely than Mart Crowley’s famous play The Boys in the Band.
John Paul Odle as Ned, Chauncey’s lover, delivered a beautifully realized performance that was full of the requisite mix of callowness, charm, and honesty. Odle has a charmingly natural acting quality that is quite subtle yet effective. His scene where he begs Chauncey not to leave him is devastatingly heartbreaking.
Jack B. Stein as Efram was superb throughout as the manager of the troupe and the straight man in the comedy sketches to Chauncey’s more exuberant persona. Stein is a dead ringer in his line readings and appearance for the great actor Ron Liebman. Stein’s timing, phrasing, and facial expressions were impeccable.
Janice Rivera as Carmen made the character uniquely her own with a marvelous accent and a fine ear for comic phrasing. Charlene Sloan as Sylvie possessed a superb sense of comic timing and an agile physical presence that commanded the stage. Danielle Comer as Joan was very comically endearing and effective in her role.
Scenic Design by Dan Remmers perfectly captured (on an ingenious revolving set) the apartment of the protagonist, the Burlesque Theater’s main stage area, the back alley and dressing rooms of the troupe, and the automat where assignations are made.
Costume Design by Jean Schlichting and Kit Sibley, assisted by Michelle Harris, was appropriate to the theatre of the burlesque house and the regular world off-stage.
Lighting Design by Ken and Patti Crowley stunningly amazed the eye with differing hues and degrees of brightness to show the moods of the characters.
Choreographer Stefan Sittig performed wonders with the intricate movements of the strippers as well as with all the movements of the actors involved with the comedic sketches.
The band added immeasurably to the comedic sketches and burlesque acts. Conductor Matthew Popkin wielded his baton with vitality (Popkin also performed piano accompaniment), with Mila Weiss on reeds, Randy Dahlberg on bass, Paul Weiss on trumpet (Brian Morton at certain performances) and Jim Hofmann on drums (Emilie Mitchell at certain performances). Music Direction was by Christopher A. Tomasino.
The Nance is, unfortunately, still relevant to our times as civil liberties are still under threat all over the world and many gay individuals still cannot come out of the closet due to punitive laws and regulations. Hearty commendation to the Little Theatre of Alexandria for producing such a challenging and intellectually tantalizing play.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.