Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Mae West once declared, "When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad I'm better." And you can't get much better than Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde. The Tony nominated comedy is currently running at the Kennedy Center through January 6th.
Dirty Blonde explores the relationship between two diehard Mae West fans. When Charlie, a mild mannered film archivist, meets Jo, an aspiring actress, at the grave of their film idol, a close friendship ensues. As we watch their relationship blossom, we are treated to flashbacks of the life and career of the irrepressible Mae West. As the story follows her time in vaudeville up to her rise as a movie icon, it is soon evident that this play doesn't just pay homage to the incredible Ms. West, but also to an era in entertainment that has long since past.
Director James Lapine and writer Claudia Shear have created a piece of theater that is funny, intelligent and moving. However, Ms. Shear's talent is not limited to writing. She is also a skillful actress, taking on the roles of both Jo and Mae West (photo at right). As Jo, she is a smart, street-wise woman, albeit a bit conflicted at times. As Mae, she is also smart, but daring as well. Shear shows off her virtuosity by adopting Ms. West's mannerisms, walk, and speech patterns without making her performance seem like a cheap imitation. She is not a caricature of Mae West - she is Mae West.
Additional characters are introduced as the play moves forward. These characters are portrayed exceptionally well by the remaining two members of the cast, Tom Riis Farrell and Bob Stillman. Tom Riis Farrell delivers a charming and very memorable performance as the unassuming Charlie. He transitions beautifully from Charlie to a number of other roles that include a rather dim prizefighter and an argumentative W.C. Fields. Bob Stillman rounds out the cast, playing the remaining characters that range from Mae West's early partner and husband to the cigar-smoking, gambler who is her companion in her later years. Mr. Stillman shines in these roles, displaying his versatility with each character change.
Douglas Stein's set and David Lander's lighting are tailor-made for this small cast. The box set awash in pink light conveys the intimacy that works so well for this show. Equally effective are Susan Hilferty's costumes. The provocative dresses designed for the West role are characters in their own right.
Just like the real Mae West, Dirty Blonde amuses and shocks. And as Charlie and Jo expound upon the blonde bombshell, we flash to Mae, bold and brassy, singing "I'm No Angel." And we know it's true. She is no angel - and aren't we glad.