Before almost single-handedly triggering the creation of Hollywood’s censorious Production Code while topping box-office charts, Mae West was drawing similarly divided responses on Broadway. Her 1926 vehicle “Sex” ran for nearly a year, closing only when police shut it down on obscenity charges, jailing its creator-star for a week. Aurora’s chamber-scaled production of this rare chestnut (not revived until the text was rediscovered in 1999) is an uneven affair. Still, the salty appeal of West’s writing and persona — ably brought back to life by thesp Delia MacDougall — make the evening’s less polished aspects seem in the spirit of a bawdy good time.
A little too cutely, the show begins and ends with the cast reciting anecdotes about West’s career, notoriety and “Sex” in particular, including quoted passages from two original Variety reviews, one titillated and one appalled. (The latter calls it a “nasty red-light district show” that has no place charging respectable $3.00 Broadway prices.)
The play doesn’t need such explanatory footnotes, however, particularly since Aurora’s older-skewing audience knows who Mae West was. Elsewhere, the original production’s racy songs are augmented by a few others from the mid-’20s, as well as three new ones by onstage pianist Billy Philadelphia.
These last actually serve the narrative, though “Sex” isn’t really a musical — most tunes are delivered by nightclub entertainers or, karaoke-style, by its patrons. They stop the action a bit awkwardly, and, while the cast is game, singing skills are variable enough to occasionally lend artistic director Tom Ross’ staging a more community-theater feel than Aurora usually hazards.
The otherwise intact original script doesn’t require elegance of delivery as it surrounds West’s unique persona with archetypal characters — the snooty society lady, the doomed waif, the blackmailing heel — written broadly to be played with zest.
The precise profession of Margy LaMont (MacDougall) is never named, but it’s clearly the World’s Oldest. Tough but tired of being “in the game,” she fancies going “straight.” Not averse to smacking her around, partner-slash-pimp Rocky (Danny Wolohan) tells her “Lose this idea of being decent. Stick to yer trade, kid. You’re good at it.”
While he’s out, she entertains and/or chases off a nonstop series of callers, the most gentlemanly being smitten on-leave naval officer Gregg (Steve Irish), who urges her to “follow the fleet” by his side. She’s forced to take up that offer when Rocky’s drugging of a socialite looking for “thrills” (Maureen McVerry) lands Margy in trouble with the Montreal police.
Next stop is Trinidad nightspot the Cafe Port au Prince, where after a few too many song interludes she meets Jimmy Stanton (Robert Brewer), a fresh-outta-college boy from a wealthy upstate New York family who’s so wet behind the ears he doesn’t even realize she’s not exactly the social-register type.
Margy accompanies Jimmy home to Westchester, where his dad (Irish) is charmed but mom is not — in fact, she’s the same society dame from Montreal. Insisting she’d only been in “the game” to survive, Margy snaps “The only difference between us is — you could afford to give it away!”
Arms akimbo, hands planted on swiveling hips, MacDougall creates a character who has her own life even as she evokes West’s singular vocal delivery and supreme self-confidence. The other actors all play multiple roles, with Irish particularly enjoyable in his. McVerry mines some rich Charlotte Greenwood-like physical comedy from Mrs. Stanton’s travails, though at times she risks overkill.
While “Sex’s” story is simple (and satisfying) enough to work well in scaled-down production, one can sense it was written for a larger, more colorful presentation than Aurora’s physically very modest one.
When ACT across the Bay revived West’s biggest stage hit, “Diamond Lil,” in 1989, its sumptuous big-cast splendor provided an element of the star’s instinctual showmanship that’s palpably absent here. It would be nice someday to see “Sex” revived in a package as outsized as the personality that still dominates it.