Come Up And See 'Dirty Blonde'

Theater Review

Signature Theatre Takes On The Legend Of Mae West

August 20, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

In a 1913 vaudeville show that toured the country, one routine featured a melodically undistinguished Tin Pan Alley song called "And Then." It wouldn't have made much of an impression, except for the startlingly suggestive spin put on it by a 20-year-old woman named Mae West when she sang such lines as: "He saw me home last evening all alone; of course, I asked him to come in. Oh, joy! Some boy!"

For the rest of her life, West served as the ultimate innuendo machine, a slow-speaking, forcibly curvaceous, almost supernaturally blond symbol of everything that decent folks warned you against. No wonder she's still popular, still a certified icon and cult figure, nearly 30 years after her death.

That fame, and the worship of it, yielded a hit play in 2000, Claudia Shear's "Dirty Blonde," which is getting an entertaining production by the Signature Theatre to launch the 20th season of the company, this year's Regional Theatre Tony Award recipient.

At a time when moviegoers are debating the effectiveness of mixing bio and idolization in "Julie and Julia," it's interesting to reconsider the similar two-track approach in "Dirty Blonde," which fuses swatches of West's life with an unlikely romance between two of her present-day fans.

The device doesn't always work seamlessly here, and there are times when it's easy to wish for more Mae (Emily Skinner) and less of the modern Mae-addicts. But there are times, too, when it would be useful to glean greater detail about sometime actress Jo (Skinner) and film archivist Charlie (Hugh Nees), who bond over their obsession with the diva of sex.

Ultimately, though, Shear's play manages to serve both story lines smoothly enough, moving from one to the other with often remarkable theatrical dexterity during the course of the work's nearly two-hour, intermission-less span.

More notable still, perhaps, is the way Shear treats West with such respect, even depicting the star's later years, when she became a self-caricature as strangely fascinating as the fictional Norma Desmond from "Sunset Boulevard" (a role she turned down, unable to see how she could possibly relate to an aging, forgotten star).

There isn't any acidity or cruelty here, just fascination with a woman who defied so many conventions and expectations, and who seemed to have so much fun sustaining her painstakingly crafted image.

Skinner clearly has fun, too, portraying West in this staging, directed with a sure touch by Jeremy Skidmore. It's not a fabulous impersonation - Skinner doesn't quite nail one of the most famous voices of the past 100 years. But she persuasively portrays the character's journey from the early years of experimentation and deliberate provocation to those twilight, transcending-camp times when West was determined to preserve the memory of when she had been at the top.

The character of Jo is also deftly limned by Skinner, and she makes the development of a relationship with Charlie seem natural, despite learning that he likes dressing up as West, too.

No, this isn't the sort of drag show you might expect. Charlie is just a guy with a secret, a guy who met his beloved Mae West when he was a teen and never lost the thrill, but can't find anyone who can relate or care. Charlie's description of seeing his idol for the first time - he thought she looked "un-old" - is one of the play's most telling moments.

Shear presents here a benign, endearing case of star-struckness. Somehow, Jo and Charlie seem incapable of taking their fandom to a dangerous extreme. They simply find in West the embodiment of traits they wished they had, and they experience an intoxicating rush at the mere thought of being able to get into a full-blown Mae mode.

Nees makes a disarming Charlie, and takes on several supporting roles - various figures in West's life - just as smoothly. J. Fred Shiffman likewise has multiple assignments, including West's song-and-dance husband Frank Wallace, and fulfills them with agility and nuance; he's particularly engaging as West's gay pal.

Music, vintage and contemporary, is well-integrated throughout the show, and the performers deliver it with aplomb. Daniel Conway's minimal set allows the action to flow seamlessly, accented by Dan Covey's lighting. Helen Huang designed the evocative costumes.

"Dirty Blonde" contains plenty of priceless West lines. It's also fun to get a scene from her famously raided 1926 play "Sex," providing an illuminating example of what passed for risque before the age of omnipresent porn.

Mae West was deliciously dangerous without ever actually being obscene. She celebrated and mocked sex at the same time, a neat trick. She must have been great company. In "Dirty Blonde," she still is.

If you go

"Dirty Blonde" runs through Oct. 4 at the Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. Tickets are $47 to $71. Call 703-573-7328 or go to signature-theatre.org.

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