Whether or not you are a fan of the late stage and screen legend Mae West, or even know who she was, sheer delight awaits at ACT Theatre where Claudia Shear's airy off-Broadway comedy hit Dirty Blonde is receiving a very satisfying production.
Shear wrote the play (conceived with James Lapine) as a vehicle for herself to portray both the legendary, bawdy actress/playwright, as well as Jo, a contemporary New Yorker who worships West. Jo's idol-worship is met and exceeded by Charlie, an amiable library film department historian, who actually met and knew Miss West and has one of her old gowns to prove it. As Jo and Charlie's relationship evolves in a happily non-hackneyed fashion, the play crosscuts with thumbnail glimpses of West's own life and career, from being a struggling playwright in the twenties, when her bold subject matter was heavily censored, to a ten year span as a reigning Hollywood superstar opposite the likes of Cary Grant and W.C. Fields, to years of nightclub appearances, and finally becoming an aged self parody in such dubious films as Myra Breckinridge and Sextette (based on her own play). No spoilers here, but rest assured that Jo and Charlie's relationship reaches a happy, unpredictable culmination, while Shear reminds us that West's declining years were largely lonely and reclusive, and that she is best remembered on screen, asking Grant to "Come up and see me sometime."
Director Jeff Steitzer is totally at home at the helm of this valentine to a screen legend and her fan base, and he successfully negotiates the less than ideal in-the-round staging required at ACT. Steitzer has also rounded up an ideal trio of performers who keep the intermissionless evening a buoyant enterprise. Julie Briskman has the requisite brassiness and sassiness required for her West impersonation and handles the aging of the character adeptly. Yet it is her big-hearted, boisterous, but often foot-in-mouth Jo that most impresses. Michael Winters is bountifully entertaining and hugely touching as Charlie, capturing the awestruck quality of a true celebrity worshipper to perfection, and he also etches several clever cameos of men in West's life, particularly scoring as West's on screen co-star and off-screen enemy, W.C. Fields. Mark Anders (also the show's musical director/pianist) is versatility personified as a succession of figures from West's life. Watching him and Winters vamp it up to Steve Tomkins' burlesque-tinged choreography, as a pair of drag queens from whom West learns her strut, wiggle and style, is one of the major joys of the evening.
Scott Weldin's scenic design is successful in suggesting just enough of the real and fantasy worlds being portrayed and is complemented by Don Darmutzer's effective lighting design. Costume designer Carolyn Keim really goes to town on the period costumes, particularly the red dresses so key to the play's climax.
It was a masterstroke of programming on ACT's part to follow the epic darkness of O'Neill's venerable Mourning Becomes Electra with this blithe, contemporary frolic. If at times, to paraphrase Mae, a good time is hard to find, rest assured it can be had at Dirty Blonde.
Dirty Blonde runs at ACT through June 30, 2002. For more information visit their website at www.acttheatre.org.