Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2002
If you take a close look at Mae West (1893-1980), you will see that she is nothing that you expect her to be. She wasn’t really blonde, she wasn’t really busty, and she wasn’t really curvy (heavy corset use there). She was kind of cross-eyed and she talked funny. And yet she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day – one of the first actresses to have creative control over her dialogue (she always wrote her own) – and the epitome of everything terrifying about female sexuality.
Alas, the Theater Barn production of Claudia Shear’s play with music Dirty Blonde was also nothing I expected it to be. Actually, other than the fact that it the title referred to Mae West and that it was written by Shear, whose performance I had enjoyed in The Smell of the Kill last summer at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, I am not sure what I expected it to be. I seemed to receive conflicting reports about its content. Was it a play about Mae West, or a play about a couple who were fans of Mae West? The answer to that question is yes, and therein lies the problem.
I was astounded to learn that Shear won a Theater World Award and received two Tony and Drama Desk nominations for her work as author and star of Dirty Blonde in New York two years ago, and the New York Times called it “the best new American play of the year.” I just hated this script, which is choppy, and does a disservice to the fascinating Ms. West by intertwining her biography with an uninteresting romance between two fans who meet at her grave. If this was the best new American play of 2000, then I can only surmise that 2000 was a terrible year for American plays!
The Theater Barn has trotted out their faithful full-bosomed performer Maria Vee to take on the dual leading roles of Mae West and her contemporary female fan, Jo. Vee is blonde and curvy and busty (see paragraph one), she is not cross-eyed, and her attempts to talk like West frequently render her unintelligible. And she is the best thing on the stage.
She is supported by John Kucher as Charlie, the other half of the contemporary couple that we are supposed to care about and don’t, and by Peter Couchman in a variety of other roles. I may have adopt Thumper’s father’s sage advice “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything” when it comes to Kucher. He is unbelievable as Charlie, horrible in a brief turn as W.C. Fields, and embarrassing as a random, swishy homosexual teaming up with Couchman in the musical number Oh My How We Pose.
Couchman fares better as West’s husband Frank Wallace, vaudeville side-kick and long-time pal Joe Frisco, and female impersonator Ed Hearn, possibly because he is playing real people and not an inconsistently written fictional being as Kucher is.
Director Clayton Phillips has staged most of this show “in one” — a theatrical term for playing in front of the closed proscenium curtain on the apron of the stage. The usual reason for doing this is so the set can be changed behind the curtain without impeding the action of the show, but Abe Phelps set is non-existent, consisting primarily of three florally upholstered chairs apparently stolen from the banquet room of a local hotel. The other reason for bringing your actors way down front is if they are unable to project their voices adequately beyond the proscenium. Judging from the musical numbers, this may well have been Phillips motivation.
There is all kinds of offensive stuff in this play. Mae West lived to shock, but she did it well. Shear’s obscenities and a scene in which marijuana use is depicted are neither funny nor titillating. And why does her modern day heroine, Jo, have such a hard time accepting the fact that Charlie is a straight man who enjoys dressing up as Mae West in private? Cross-dressing is the most harmless of occupations and is in no way indicative of someone’s sexual preference. Of course, I would have had an easier time accepting Charlie’s cross-dressing myself if Kucher had not stood there looking like a guy in a dress. The character says that he likes to dress like West because it makes him feel like her. I don’t think Mae West ever felt like a guy in a dress.
According to a reprint of a New York Times article that the Theater Barn included in my press kit, Shear was approached by the legendary director James Lapine with the idea for this show, and she wrote it in collaboration with him. This collaboration seems to have taken the shape of Shear writing and Lapine telling her that most of what she wrote was no good. Do I need to tell you what Mae West would have said to any “gentleman” who dared to rewrite her? I am surprised that Shear’s self-described “obsession” with West didn’t wise her up to the importance of standing on her own two feet and demanding creative control. If she had, the theatre might have been blessed with a really terrific play about Mae West, instead of this sorry mess.
Dirty Blonde runs through June 23 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs an hour and forty minutes with no intermission. Some adult language and drug use, don’t bring children under 12. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002