Okay Dirty Blonde Arrives in New Jersey
Claudia Shear’s full length, one act Dirty Blonde is a humdinger of a play which brilliantly conflates a lusty stage biography of iconographic screen legend of the 1930s and ‘40s Mae West with the affecting romantic tale of Jo and Charlie, a nerdish pair who meet while visiting her grave at Cypress Hills cemetery in Queens. The Women’s Theater Company production at the YM-YWHA in Wayne is worth a visit.
As told by Ms. Shear, the quite remarkable and unlikely story of Mae West is lusty, humorous and poignant. It is also a great American success story. Born in 1893, Mae West was on the stage in vaudeville and burlesque from her early teens. She developed the persona of a witty and foul mouthed, loose and action hungry sex bomb. Clearly a talented writer, West wrote plays for herself and her public persona which eventually landed on Broadway where they caused quite a sensation. In fact, in 1926 she was jailed for obscenity for her play Sex.
It was not until West was almost forty that she arrived in Hollywood to play a small but picture-stealing role. There, during a period lasting less than eight years, she made nine films, most of which she wrote and/or were based on her plays. In these films, neither young nor a great beauty, the diminutive West comes across as parodying sex. Still, she became the biggest and best-paid female star in Hollywood. Credited with having saved Paramount Pictures during the Depression, West is also deemed responsible for the imposition of the notorious Hollywood production code. The code, in turn, is often blamed for the early demise of West’s career.
Mae West was a tough, larger than life survivor. She trouped on for five more decades burnishing her image as a sex symbol into old age. Ultimately, the result was the disastrous 1978 film Sextette. To an objective eye, the then 85-year-old West had become a pathetic and pitiful joke trapped by her long outmoded persona (when playwright Shear informs us that Billy Wilder offered West the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, and that she declined to play it, both of their actions are clearly understandable). However, Shear brilliantly enables us to understand West's need and admire her determination and courage.
Both Jo and Charlie are shy and lonely. Jo is employed as an office temp and describes herself as an aspiring actress. A product of a Brooklyn Catholic school, she was exhilarated by the screen persona of Mae West. Jo appears to be past the flush of youth and too tentative to actively seek to fulfill her aspirations.
Charlie is a nerdy librarian in the film archives of the New York Public Library. It is to author Shear’s credit that they are neither an odd couple nor neatly matched. It will take a great deal of courage and reaching out on behalf of both if they are to find a life together.
Robin Thomas plays the dual roles of Jo and Mae. She is far more successful as Jo than she is as Mae. Her Jo is tentative and shy, trying unsuccessfully to spread her wings. She flutters about and laughs tentatively. We can see that she would live her life more fully if she only had the chops to do so. Unfortunately, the major weakness of the evening is that Thomas’ Mae West is not the tough survivor called for in the script. Her performance is one that we might expect from a good parochial school girl who had been cast in the role in a college production. The intonations are often on target, but it is in the service of a performance which feels like an impersonation, and a very tame one, at that.
David Volin as Charlie nicely mines the shyness, likeability, pathos and humor that are central to the role. Volin plays several other male roles to fine effect. Lenny Bart is an especial delight as a number of characters who played major roles in Mae’s life. Most impressive is his portrayal of Ed Hearn, a gay former vaudevillian who becomes her paid confidant.
There are so many men in Mae’s life that even pianist Warren Helms nicely adds a couple of brief male roles. Helms provides accompaniment to several Mae West oldies sung throughout the evening, as well as to Bob Stillman’s jaunty title song. Especially delightful is “How We Pose-ee,” sung by Volin and Bart, a “gay” number purportedly from a show called The Drag.
Director Lauren Moran Mills has directed a clear, entertaining production. This is a notable accomplishment as Dirty Blonde is a deceptively complex play in which the cast of three (plus the pianist) plays a phalanx of roles in two overlapping stories. There is much humor in the show (much of it by way of West’s pen), and it all lands with perfect timing.
There is a very moving scene at the end of the play which lacks the poignancy that it had in James Lapine’s original production. It seemed to this viewer that director Mills was either uncomfortable or out of synch with the Shear/Lapine point of view here. Additionally, Mills likely deserves a major part of the blame for the absence of a tougher, more believable interpretation of Mae.
Jessica Parks' minimal but attractive unit set consists of three pink panels, trimmed in gold. The large center panel is topped by a frame with a painted image of Mae West. Reminiscent of vaudeville, the set feels in keeping with Shear’s tone. It is always surprising how effective the simple device of blinking lights around the proscenium can be. Robert McLaughlin and Dorcey Winant have provided many effective and playable costumes.
Dirty Blonde is an excellent American play (In 2000, it was nominated for five Tonys, including Best Play). It blends pure entertainment and serious content as effectively as it combines its interlocking stories. Praise to the Women’s Theater Company for bringing it to us.
Dirty Blonde continues performances through February 20, 2005 at the Women’s Theater Company in residence at the North Jersey YM-YWHA, One Pike Drive (Ratzer Road), Wayne, NJ 07470; Bob Office: 973-316-3033; online www.womenstheatercompany.org.
Dirty Blonde written by Claudia Shear, Conceived by Claudia Shear and James Lapine, original song “Dirty Blonde” by Bob Stillman; directed by Lauren Moran Mills
CAST Jo/Mae .......... Robin Thomas Charlie/etal .......... David Volin Frank/etal .......... Lenny BartPiano: Warren Helms