She was dubbed the Statue of Libido. In 1926, she wrote a play cryptically entitled Sex . Fifty-two years later, she was still sashaying around as an irresistible siren in a surreal movie called Sextet . Progressing from hand-on-hip insolence to hand-on-hip-replacement monstrosity, she wound up needing a support act in the shape of loincloth-clad musclemen. Mae West was "the debutante who came out in 1910 and hasn't been home since". A case of sad self-deception, or dogged courage - or a bit of both?
And now the hour-glass icon is the focus of Dirty Blonde , a delightful, funny and touching entertainment, written by and starring Claudia Shear.
The piece steers clear of the bio-play treatment, instead concerning itself as much with the effect of the Mae West myth on her fans as on the one-liner-dispensing diva West herself. James Lapine's engaging three-hander interweaves two complimentary strands.
In one, we see our heroine (played by Shear) picking up the tricks that turn her into the undying legend of Diamond Lil. How to slow down her delivery to the trademark drop-dead drawl, how to move like a truck-driver in a frock, how to roll the eyes and pat those peroxide waves. In short, how to resemble a woman imitating a man in drag.
Step up the characters in the alternating part of the plait. Beautifully played by Kevin Chamberlin, Charlie is a shy, fat, balding film archivist who, as a teenage movie nerd, had a couple of formative encounters with his wet dream, Mae West.
Hailing from Brooklyn with a neat line in backchat, the mostly resting actress Jo (also played by Shear) has everything West had, bar nerve, originality and stardom. Charlie and Jo meet at the grave of their idol and, dramaturgically speaking, the encounter could have been the start of something mawkishly clichéd, given that he turns out to have a transvestite compulsion Westwards and that she is not that dissimilar. But this becomes the story of heterosexual soulmates who discover a deep affinity through common fantasies about a deceased performer.
Greatly energised by Bob Stillman, who plays a host of other roles, this shrewd, unpretentious play explores the paradox that West became, the trapped, yet unrepining inmate of a legend that liberates others. To adapt one of her classic lines: come up sometime and see it.
Paul TaylorReuse content