Friday, June 19, 2009

Plays of the 00s: Dirty Blonde

Misconceptions: that because star Claudia Shear also wrote this play about Mae West, the piece is a one-woman show; that biographical plays are doomed as a genre, particularly on the page, where they lack even the diversion of a virtuoso mimic; that because I've never heard anyone mention Dirty Blonde in any context beyond the Tony roster, it was a "filler" nominee.

I thought all of it, and I thought wrong. What a fleet, energetic conception Dirty Blonde is, what a hilarious and engaging read, and what a joyous surprise—a perfect example of why poking around old awards ballots is a worthy endeavor. Dirty Blonde is somewhere around a 20-character endeavor, though all 20 parts were played by three actors in the off-Broadway and Broadway production. Sure, it's still Mae West's show: her story's at the center, she gets a boatload of delicious comic lines, and everyone else in the show loves her, idolizes her, works for her, pines for her, or takes motivated exception to her. You can see how an actress, and particularly a kind of actress who's hard to cast at the center of most Broadway shows, could both have and create a doozy of a good time in this plum part, and not least because the script has her spinning in and out of character on a dime, obligated as she also is to play a modern-day fan who's not without spunk but who dreams of being the full-on powerhouse and provocateuse that Mae was.

Dirty Blonde cycles constantly but nimbly, with tremendous delicacy and with zesty comedy, between an exploration of slowly, deeply, flagrantly constructed stardom and a snapshot of two very different latter-day fans who may or may not be that different, though they sure peg each other wrong, and the audience probably does, too. The relations of stars to fans, of pop-culture consumers to manufactured icons, are never cheapened or flattened by Dirty Blonde; a play about Mae West has no business "flattening" anything, but Shear makes these bonds contagious without denying their complexity, serious and poignant without denying the burlesque appeal of her chosen star. And it matters that the star is West: you couldn't build the same script around just any old Hollywood star. The Mae of this play, persuasively close to the Mae of New York and Hollywood record, might well be a garish, ambitious, unlikely, saucy pastiche—one who knew a lot of things, except when to quit—but she's still uniquely her own creation. I suspect it's the seam-flaunting, boundary-testing bricolage of Mae's own star-image, a shockingly ahead-of-her-time gal in ostentatiously outmoded dress, that makes that persona so encouraging of participation. It's so easy and savory to mix and match her parts, even while you watch her or listen to her, even on the surface of your own body, or in the leering lilt of your own voice. When the other characters in Dirty Blonde swap Mae stories or don Mae's garments or impersonate her choice lines and legendary walk, you can see what an open invitation Mae embodied, and not just sexually. There's more insight and dexterity in this play with regard to gender, sexuality, identity, masquerade, and self-performance than in more "highbrow" fare like I Am My Own Wife. Just because it's a peach to read and, undoubtedly, a pip to watch doesn't mean it isn't good for you. And it gets the stage, and what you can do with some savvy blocking, smart lighting, crisp writing, and a proscenium space. Certainly the eloquence, ease, and suggestive power of the flashbacks and flash-forwards as well as the savvy doublings of the actors at several moments run rings and rings and rings around what Arthur Miller's doing with comparable devices in Mt. Morgan.

Still, Dirty Blonde probably would feel like one actress-writer's opportunistic grab for convenient impersonation if the modern-day plot between film archivist Charlie and sometime-actress Jo weren't so colorful and layered, surprising in ways that mostly avoid seeming "forced" or boringly refractory of the same ideas breathing out of Mae's scenes. Their talk is just as vivid as Mae's, even if they themselves are pretty average folk: Jo has reason over the course of the play to profess just how fond and unjudgmental of Charlie she is, and she doesn't mince words, any more than Mae does when she launches a blistering attack on Ernst Lubitsch ("Why you Dutch bastard! Why don't you go back home and stick your finger in a dike!"). Their odd, unexpected process of getting to know each other pertly but tenderly reveals what's complex about all of us, without pretending that almost any of us are as "big" or as suggestive of greater meanings as Mae was. Dirty Blonde captures what the moments feel like when we get away with something we shouldn't (whether by scoring with a lewd joke or by sneaking an iced coffee into a controlled-air library vault), and what moments feel like when they're so rare and so beyond our power to see them coming that we know they'll dictate the rest of our lives, for better and for worse. The Sunset Boulevard-ish cuts to Mae's decrepit years are pitiful, funny, but refusing of dewy idealism, but best of all, they're even more interesting about Charlie than they are about Mae.

If you were an actor, you'd be lucky to land any part in the play. Imagine what a rarity that is in a piece of biographical theater. If you're a belter or a big girl or a talented tease, start taking acting lessons now, since the singing, shimmying, sassing role of Mae could be the chance of your career. If you're a director, you have so much material to play with in Dirty Blonde, and so much convincing, tempered humanity to pull out of all the bright play. If you're a fan of old movies, the play could be heaven, and it could as easily change your mind as it did mine about Mae West, whom one character aptly calls "the Venice of old Hollywood stars," since there's not another one remotely like her. If you're a reader, good luck: this thing's out of print, for who knows what ungodly reason, but it's the kind of script you want to send to all your friends as soon as you've read it. Three cheers to Claudia Shear, even ten years late. You done her right.

(And no, he wasn't Dutch.)

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