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"I made myself platinum, but I was born a dirty
Some Mae West fans can quote every line from every film and then some. In Claudia Shear's play with music, lots of recognizable West lines have been tossed into the script, but sometimes it's hard to know if a line is from Mae West or Claudia Shear. It doesn't matter, really - if Shear can turn out lines as funny and wry as Ms. West's, who would complain?
The dirty blonde line surely captures the bravely bawdy spirit which was the essence of this one-of-a-kind entertainer. The dirty, of course, is meant in two ways - the kind of double entendre that was a West trademark. It's a signature line for a woman who was down-to-earth and frankly sexual at a time in history when the expression of sexuality was frowned upon in general; for a woman, it was utterly taboo. So West flaunted her hour-glass figure, her come-hither tone of voice, and her double entendre lines and not only did she get away with it most of the time, it made her money, it made her a star, it carried her into the realm of legend.
West didn't get away with it completely; battles with the censors were repeatedly a problem for her. One imagines, if that had not been the case, she would have taken her material to the next level so that it would have become so. That's the "attitude" that Shear celebrates in her play: the in-your-face independence of someone who holds different values - or simply is different - from the norm. That, along with her flamboyance, probably goes a long way toward explaining West's popularity with gay men, although it is dangerous territory these days to make such a generalization without falling into the trap of stereotyping.
Shear's script explores all of this (and the presence of a swishy gay character can't be condemned as stereotyping; there are, after all, some gay men like that). She skillfully interweaves the meeting and growing friendship between West fans Jo and Charlie with biographical material about West and key people in her life. To Sheer's credit, the material about West is not uniformly admiring; West was extraordinarily vain and an egotist of a high order. She is depicted here, for example, as a talker who is an insensitive listener.
Shear herself plays both Jo and West, managing to keep Jo real and sympathetic. When she morphs into West, it's a cleverly wrought impersonation. It is disclosed fairly early on that Charlie is not only a West fan, but a transvestite as well. How this plays out between Jo and Charlie is the driving plot line; the West material provides the glitter, the brass, and the funniest lines, not necessarily including dialogue on high colonics over a Chinese meal.
At something over an hour and a half (without an intermission), it's a slight piece and from time to time feels somewhat episodic and choppy. The ultimate resolution of the central relationship is not entirely convincing: Shear never makes it clear just why Jo changes the way she does. Still, the knowing direction of James Lapine keeps the pace moving and at moments when the essential thinness of the central story starts to show through, a quick switch back into the West material diverts.
The scenic design by Douglas Stein shrinks the stage to contain the three players. He encloses it in a box which creates a depth perspective focused on a smaller rear wall on which scenes are changed with drops, projections, and the imaginative lighting design by David Lander. It takes only a projection of shadow palm trees on the side walls, for example, instantly to conjure up Hollywood.
In addition to Ms. Shear, two actors each handle a multiplicity of roles, segueing from one to another with versatile virtuosity. Tom Riis Farrell both captures Charlie's fun side and his vulnerability. When he assumes the role of one of West's musclemen, his poker-faced demeanor through the number is an audience-pleasing gag. Bob Stillman plays a handful of roles, as well as the piano, which plays itself when he doesn't. He also handled the musical direction and wrote the one original (eponymous) song.
Dirty Blonde in the end may feel limited as Mae West herself was limited. She did what she did very well, but she didn't really have much range. As stated in the play, she found what worked for her audience and she froze it. That works for only so long before the act gets tired. Dirty Blonde has enough amusing turns to fill its slight length. It's an audience pleasing light entertainment enhanced by skilled production and ingratiating performances.
New York, September 30, 2000 - Arthur Lazere