Michael Russotto on his gay burlesque character in ‘The Nance’ at 1st Stage

The veteran actor goes deep into the role and the repressive era of the play.

Michael Russotto, who plays the lead Chauncey Miles in 1st Stage’s current production of Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance, has an eclectic and extraordinary résumé in his 40-plus years on the stage. From mid-1980s productions at Studio Theatre (where he studied under the legendary Joy Zinoman) to numerous performances at Woolly Mammoth Theatre (such as Will in the acclaimed 2011 run of Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise) and dozens of other shows across the area and nationally (including a recent national tour of Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie), this veteran actor is a reliably memorable presence.

Michael Russotto as Chauncey Miles in ‘The Nance.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

In The Nance, as directed by Nick Olcott, Russotto takes on the role originated by Nathan Lane in a 2013 Tony-nominated performance. It is a bookend of sorts, Russotto said, for himself and Olcott; 41 years ago, in what the veteran actor counts as his first professional performance, the two were part of the cast of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap at the now-defunct Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre in Laurel. They first connected about this new play, Russotto added, in the summer of 2020 when auditions were held via Zoom; nearly four years later, “…we have had a great time. Nick has been a terrific guide through the rehearsal process, and we build off each other’s thoughts.”

Michael Russotto © 2015 | Kristina Sherk Photography | www.Kristinasherk.com

Chauncey is a gay burlesque actor who performs nightly as a “nance,” an effeminate and campy character wildly popular during the 1930s period that Carter Beane dramatizes. Chauncey balances this role with a blossoming relationship he develops with the much younger Ned (played by Patrick Joy), and political attacks on gay men by then New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, which reverberate across society. Despite it all, he performs; even after Ned leaves the pressure of New York City for a national touring production. “He [Chauncey] believes what he hears [about gay men], and that he does not deserve happiness.”

For the openly gay Russotto, his character is “a man struggling to come to terms with who he is. And I am not sure he likes who he is.” The veteran actor added, “On the surface, he believes he is happy. But deep down inside, I think he feels like he is lying to himself…and to be rejected by fellow Republicans — for who he is — is deeply wounding.” Among the reasons Russotto appreciates Carter Beane’s writing is that “I love that it does not sugarcoat how difficult it was to be a gay person during this time. They were a marginalized group.”

The relationship between Chauncey and Ned is at the center of The Nance. While initially the relationship is solely sexual, the men’s feelings grow; yet Chauncey struggles between his feelings for Ned and his own (lack of) self-worth. To nurture the relationship that emerges on stage, Russotto and Joy worked with Intimacy Coordinator Lorraine Ressegger-Slone. For Russotto, this brought an added dimension to his performance: “Patrick and I were both willing to explore the physical possibilities of this performance; Lorraine helped make that happen.” The seasoned actor also appreciated Joy’s talent: “While I have more experience, Patrick was very willing and open [to try things on stage]. Once a young actor understands that — the freedom to fail — it makes a big difference.”

LEFT: Michael Russotto as Chauncey Miles; RIGHT: Robert Joy as Ned, in ‘The Nance.’ Photos by Teresa Castracane.

The relationship Russotto and Joy showcase evolves, but internally, Chauncey is still troubled; he resists Ned’s entreaties to have a monogamous relationship and instead pursues anonymous encounters with other men. “Chauncey is so conditioned to believe that it [his relationship with Ned] is wrong that he can’t maintain it,” Russotto said. “He falls in love with Ned…but that is not a thing that is viable. When love comes to him, he rejects it; that’s the tragedy of the play.”

By the play’s end, playwright Carter Beane resists a happy ending. Why? “Because it’s the truth,” Russotto said. “Since 1937, things have not changed all that much. Some people now still believe sexuality is a choice, and a bad choice, that you make. By the play’s end, Chauncey is struggling to find some light at the end of the tunnel.” As to his character’s future, Russotto is not hopeful, “I don’t know. But it’s not a happy one.”

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes plus a 15-minute intermission.

The Nance plays through April 21, 2024, at 1st Stage, located at 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA. Tickets are $55 for general admission and are available for purchase by calling the box office at 703-854-1856, going online, or in person before each performance. Limited numbers of seats are offered at $25 and $35 for each performance. Open seating.

The program for The Nance is online here.

COVID Safety: 1st Stage is now a mask-optional space with select mask-required performances offered for each show. See 1st Stage’s complete COVID Safety Information here.

Closeted ‘Nance’ plays flamboyant and funny onstage at 1st Stage
(review by Caroline Bock, April 8, 2024)


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