Mae West slipped in as an unlikely icon of popular American culture and myth somewhere in the 40s, and her reputation and public persona - fueled by all those racy one liners attributed to her - is known to more people now than were alive at the height of her career. So, half of Dirty Blonde, which opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theatre, is indeed plausible. That two individuals could, in this day and age, become obsessed with her and, in a pilgrimage to her grave, meet and ultimately develop a significant relationship seems an effortless twist on the old boy meets girl story. Claudia Shear, as the playwright, has handled the telling of this fragile romance with honesty, sweetness, and a genuine affection for her two main characters Charlie and Jo.
The half of Dirty Blond that's implausible deals with the biographical scenes from Mae West's life and they are implausible only because they are the absolute truth, as unlikely, outrageous, and fascinating as Mae West herself. Ms Shear's handling of the interdependent and interspersed scenes detailing both Charlie and Jo's budding romance and the codification of West's persona and her decline into parody is masterful. Dirty Blonde, as slight and amusing a trifle as it may first appear, is one of the best genuine new plays to open on Broadway this season. Make no mistake about it, Claudia Shear is a serious playwright with a fresh, sometimes bizarre, and frequently hilarious take on the human condition.
Ms Shear also stars in Dirty Blonde, as both the irrepressible Mae West and as Jo, the loveable young woman brave enough to see West as a hero. That both roles are handled with an understated artistry and elegance would be too pale a complement for her talent as an actress. She knows where the laughs are and delivers every single one. She also gives shatteringly honest glimpses behind the masks worn by both Mae and Jo, rounding out and completing her characters with occasionally little more than a glance or small gesture. Make no mistake about it, Claudia Shear is also an actress of rare gifts and insight.
Kevin Chamberlin, as Charlie and "others" is a minor revelation. An actor with the versatility to play the serious and bashful Charlie, and several other characters, in each case striking the correct character note, Chamberlin centers Dirty Blonde in a workaday reality, allowing Shear and Stillman to safely soar in their flights of fancy. Bob Stillman as "Frank Wallace, Ed Hearn, and others" is the grand showman, astonishing in a series of finely drawn miniature characters.
With Dirty Blonde, we have the perfect funny, upbeat, and touching show on which to end this Broadway season. Time to pop the cork on a bottle of good champagne and lift our glasses in a toast; Mae's back in town and everybody's guaranteed a good time!
Dirty Blonde, a comedy with music, by Claudia Shear. Conceived by Claudia Shear and James Lapine. Directed by James Lapine. Musical staging by John Carrafa. Scenic Design by Douglas Stein. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by David Lander. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Arrangements, musical direction, and original song "Dirty Blonde" by Bob Stillman. Starring Claudia Shear, Kevin Chamberlin, and Bob Stillman.
Theatre: Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue)
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, with no intermission
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM.
Audience: May be inappropriate for children 12 and younger - contains Mae West type comic sexual double entendres.
Ticket prices: $60 (Wednesday matinee $55)
Tickets online: TeleCharge
Tickets by phone: TeleCharge at (212) 239-6200, or outside the New York metro area (800) 545-2559, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
Tickets in person: Box Office hours Monday 10 AM to 6 PM, Tuesday through Saturday 10 AM to 8 PM, Sunday Noon to 5 PM
Tickets by E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tickets by Snail mail: Dirty Blonde, Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street, New York NY 10036