Also see Suzanne's recent review of A Month in the Country
Not one, but two self-invented feisty women who became Twentieth Century entertainment icons are currently represented on area stages. On the Cambridge side of the river, we have Kate Mulgrew channeling Katherine Hepburn in Tea at Five at the American Repertory Theatre, and on the Boston side, Maryann Zschau is the embodiment of Mae West in Dirty Blonde at The Lyric Stage Company.
The Hepburn play, written for Mulgrew by Matthew Lombardo, is a revision of the Hartford Stage Company production now at the A.R.T. as a "special fall event" for a September 8 - 22 run which is completely sold out. But no matter, a better time is to be had in the company of Mae West and friends in Dirty Blonde anyway, which runs through October 12th at the Lyric Stage.
Although Dirty Blonde, a play written by Claudia Shear (conceived by Shear and James Lapine), has Mae West as a central figure, this is not a one-woman show. Zschau plays both Mae and Jo, a contemporary young Brooklyn misfit drawn to the star of yesteryear. Jo is befriended by Charlie (Larry Coen), another lonely New Yorker and ardent Mae West fan. Their relationship is the core of the play, not the saga of West's life running in parallel. To round out the fun, Coen, together with Will McGarrahan (who does double duty as music director), portray all the rest of the men in West's life, from W.C. Fields to an amusing collection of vaudevillians, muscle men, boxers and drag queens.
Will McGarrahan, Maryann Zschau
and Larry Coen in Dirty Blonde
Dirty Blonde is the more compelling of the two plays if only because, although both actress's famous one-liners are carved on our cultural psyche, the details of Mae West's life haven't been journalistic fodder for the last twenty-five years.
In Tea at Five, Lombardo chooses not to venture very far from Hepburn's version of things, in part to fend off any legal action against this "unauthorized" biography. (A letter from niece Katherine Houghton published in The Hartford Courant praised Mulgrew's performance, but quibbled with the play's factual details.) Hepburn, alone in the Connecticut family home, addresses the audience over tea, a daily family rite at which current events and world views were heatedly dissected but never the family's own travails. According to Hepburn, her brother Tom, who hanged himself at the age of 14, was never mentioned again in her presence after the day she discovered his body.
Both West and Hepburn were invented creatures. Each wanted to be a star, and with the help of various coaches and mentors, developed a distinctive voice, physical presence and personality. Neither quite fit the mold of the conventional female performer of her day. Each struggled for acceptance in the early years, but failures were overcome and, when the formula was right, the invention was frozen.
Audiences are drawn to productions like theses, initially at least, by the lure of seeing a "Madame Tussaud" celebrity likeness come to life. Most will be familiar with these two figures both from the classic films made when each was in her prime and from the occasional film and TV appearances revealing the ravages of time in later years. Mulgrew and Zschau both nail their impersonation across the decades with the help of costumes, wigs and a lot of research. Each dove into the available material, studied the films and developed the distinctive voice and unique physical characteristics. No question about it, in both cases the results are astonishing.
But while Tea at Five doesn't go much beyond that, Dirty Blonde manages to be more than a play about costumes and wigs. Granted, it almost becomes a play about costume changes since West's life isn't told chronologically, but in the end it's about learning to like who you are. And what counts is that Zschau and Coen take us on Jo and Charlie's journey together and touch us with that revelation.
They are ably assisted by director Spiro Veloudos and Boston's own "designing women": Janie Howland, sets; Gail Astrid Buckley, costumes; and Karen Perlow, lights. This team has rethought the stark design of the original Broadway production, providing a much warmer, more intimate environment suggesting an old vaudeville house. The choice of luscious pink for Mae's penultimate sequined outfit is a stunning one and the sequence where Zschau dons it, delightful.
Audiences are drawn to what they already know so the quasi-documentary personality profile has appeal. The runaway success of Hershey Felder's George Gershwin Alone at the A.R.T. this summer (returning for a promised final run September 27 - October 12) bears witness to this. And producers are also drawn by the economics of a single set, single performer show, especially when that performer has a following as Mulgrew does from her tenure in Star Trek: Voyager.
There is nothing easy or safe, however, about Dirty Blonde. The play tackles provocative subject matter, offers some fresh insight into a familiar figure and tells a story that sends us out of the theatre with something to think about, perhaps even a little bit different from who we were when we came in.
Dirty Blonde now through October 12th at the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St. (Copley Square), Boston, Mass (in the YWCA Building.) For tickets and information: (617) 437-7172 or online at www.lyricstage.com
Tea at Five, the Hartford Stage production, now through September 22nd at the American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center, 54 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass. ALL PERFORMANCES ARE SOLD OUT. For more information: www.amrep.org.