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Chauncey Miles, the comic entertainer at the center of director Steve Noll’s production of “The Nance” (staged through this weekend by Madison Theatre Guild and Noll’s OUT!Cast Productions) has a lot in common with the hero of another play Noll staged a few years ago. “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” also featured a witty flamboyant laid low by an oversized dose of personal hubris. And both roles were/are even played by the same actor—Dennis Yadon.
The setting, though? Well, that’s a little different. Chauncey’s a gay man playing the titular uber-swishy stock character on the stage of a dying New York burlesque theater in the 1930s. Despite the fact that he’s painfully aware that he’s basically, as he so bluntly puts it, “a negro doing blackface,” he’s filled with joie de vivre when he’s on stage. And a tidal wave of self-loathing when he’s not.
That’s understandable, given the times in which he lives and the fact that his chosen milieu/profession is all but crumbling around him. New York’s mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, is looking to drop the hammer on burlesque joints, while the local cops are looking for any excuse to drop their fists (and truncheons) on anything remotely subversive.
The chemistry between Yadon and Scott Stanley, who plays the hulking stage manager Efram, is the best part of the show. The vaudeville acts, despite being a form of entertainment that went the way of the dinosaur almost a century ago, feel funny and fresh, in no small part because both Yadon and Stanley throw themselves headlong into them. These scenes have more life and pop than the kaffeklatsch—or maybe that ought to be vodkaklatch—meetings in Chauncey’s apartment among the theater’s cast members, including the three strippers (Katie Debs, Marie Mack and Ariel LeBron) whose routines add spice to the show.
If you’re familiar with the show, you know the role of Chauncey in the play’s original 2013 production was written for and starred Nathan Lane. To Yadon’s everlasting credit, he never tries to ape or even echo Lane’s signature style. As we’ve noted in this space before, Yadon’s a master at playing characters with warring witty and caustic sides. He manages to both capture that difficult split and even generate sympathy for Chauncey’s self-destructive tendencies.
And boy, does he have that in spades. Chauncey’s inner conflict doesn’t always play out in logical fashion—a shortcoming of Douglas Cater Beane’s script, which has some trouble deciding whether it wants to be a personal story or a political platform. Chauncey spends the entire first scene tartly advising his naïve soon-to-be lover Ned (J. Francis Molloy, who grows confidently into the role as the play goes on) about the importance of utter discretion when cruising the local automat for quickies (“There’s no camping in this neck of the woods,“ he quips). But later, when Efram warns Chauncey to keep his personal life under wraps so as to avoid the citation-happy attention of the local licensing commissioner, the first thing he does is co-opt Ned to fill in onstage for an actor who’s been snapped up by another burlesque house.
It’s also a little odd that not a single member of Chauncey’s company blames him in the slightest for poking the bear that ends up disrupting their livelihoods. His bravery deserves praise, to be sure, but man, to have such friends as these.
The script’s political agenda is as admirable as it is nakedly transparent. Chauncey’s a raging Log Cabin Republican (“Say something nice about Franklin Roosevelt and prepare to have your eyes scratched out,” he threatens) who’s deluded himself into believing LaGuardia’s moral crusade is just empty electioneering. The oft-mentioned licensing commissioner, meanwhile, is portrayed as a confirmed bachelor/closet case whose own moral crusade, it’s suggested, is an exercise of overcompensation way bigger than the balloons that cover LeBron’s stripper during one of her burlesque dances. Not so subtle.
The peril Chauncey and Ned face ought to feel antiquated, just another relic of a bygone age. Given what gays in Chechnya are reportedly experiencing—and what the LGBTQ community may experience in terms of eroding rights under the current U.S. administration—it’s anything but.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning theater coverage for madisonmagazine.com.