Mae West, the central character in Claudia Shear’s “Dirty Blonde,” is not the most ravishing thing in the production, a misfortune that would probably have gravely disappointed the assiduously self-absorbed performer. That prize goes to the ace work of set designer Douglas Stein and lighting designer David Lander, who together create a stunningly handsome, economical and elegant frame for this warm-hearted tribute to the voluptuous star who is still the ultimate personification of sex on the silver screen.
A theatrical curio conceived by Shear and vet director James Lapine, “Dirty Blonde” combines a bio-play that traces the highlights of West’s career with a contemporary romance between two misfits who idolize her. Neither half is particularly distinguished, but they are threaded together under Lapine’s astute directorial hand to create a genial evening of theater that also serves as an informative primer on the life and career of a one-of-a-kind showbiz personality.
Shear, best known for her hit solo show “Blown Sideways Through Life,” plays Mae at various ages as well as a young woman with suspiciously Shear-ish inflections and attitudes who strikes up a complicated friendship with a man she meets while on a pilgrimage to West’s grave. Kevin Chamberlin portrays this reclusive cinephile, Charlie Konner, whose recollections of his teenage encounters with the aged Mae captivate Shear’s Jo, an aspiring actress who is heartened by West’s career to see the potential in her own life.
“She was from Brooklyn, she was short, she certainly wasn’t young or thin, and it took her 30 years but she made it anyway,” as Jo tells Charlie. She was also an utter original, as Jo elsewhere observes (“She’s the movie star equivalent of Venice”), and therein lies an obstacle the play cannot overcome. As with various other distinctive and oft-impersonated stars, it’s easy to adopt Mae West’s mannerisms but well nigh impossible to re-create her essence. Shear’s performance as Mae registers as a less than perfect impression, and inevitably seems flat when compared to memories of the real thing — and those memories are often evoked, since the script draws on much of West’s original material.
Lapine’s artful direction keeps the pace brisk, and the turning points in West’s life are staged with colorful vaudevillian panache. Chamberlin and Bob Stillman play all the men in Mae’s life, bringing to each character a nicely calibrated dose of old-fashioned stage ham as well as occasional humanizing touches. They’re aided by the flavorful costumes of Susan Hilferty, and period piano music often provided by Stillman himself.
The appeal of the production is enhanced to a remarkable degree by the beautiful stage pictures conjured by Lapine and designers Stein and Lander through the use of some very simple effects. The set is merely a large white box surrounded by darkness and lit with an array of softly saturated colors. Merely by manipulating chairs or adding or subtracting a few evocative details — a chandelier, a square of neon tubing, a theater curtain, a shaft of light in the distinctive shape of a car window — the designers move us among a wide variety of locales with astonishing ease and swiftness.
It’s bravura work that’s rarely matched by the quality of the writing, however. The play’s docudrama aspects are fairly pedestrian, despite the crisp and attractive staging, and Jo and Charlie don’t acquire much more depth as contemporary characters than the more broadly depicted figures from Mae’s life. Nor is the oddball romance between them — let’s just say Charlie takes his identification with Mae to interesting extremes — particularly convincing.
The best-written scenes in the play are the encounters between the young Charlie and the aged Mae, which have a pungent, real pathos. Shear is in fact eerily convincing as the late, decrepit star, perhaps because by then West had in fact become a ghoulish caricature of her younger self.
In seclusion in Hollywood, visited by the occasional former admirer and yet all too eager to entertain a new one, West is entombed by her past, and Stein’s enclosed cube set becomes a metaphor for the cosseting trap of celebrity. West’s fame, which had cast such a bright light on the lives of Jo and Charlie, ultimately leaves the star herself in isolation, living in an insular, artificial world created to preserve her ego from the depredations of the real one.