‘When I’m Bad I’m Better’:
Mae West on Stage in ‘Dirty Blonde’ at Signature
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor
This past Monday, August 17, would have been Mae West’s 116th birthday. That date would usually pass unnoticed nowadays except for the opening this week at Signature Theatre of Dirty Blonde, a play with music that is partially a biography and partially a tribute to West, who died in 1980 at the age of 87.
West was a multiple-threat performer who started as a child on the vaudeville stage and became a Broadway star, a top movie box-office draw, and a Las Vegas headliner, as well as a producer, director, playwright, memoirist, and cause célèbre.
What’s more, Mae West was transgressive in ways that would make cultural critic Camille Paglia stand up and take notice – and smile.
In fact, Paglia said in a July 2003 article by Ingrid Sischy in Interview magazine, “When Mae West was pushing the envelope in the 1920s and getting arrested for it, her work was all about innuendo and ambiguity. She had a juicy, luscious, relaxed sexual maturity. She portrayed sexual relations as a warm, forgiving comedy.”
From early in her career, West knew how to shock and titillate. She had an entrepreneurial eye that led her to borrow from “out” groups that enriched her performance and her persona. For instance, she was one of the first white performers to do the “shimmie,” which she borrowed from African-American dancers. Her famous (infamous?) attitude – posture, stride, pose, sneer, and costume – was borrowed from gay men and drag queens that she knew. She made no secret of, nor did she offer an apology for, taking from and enjoying the contributions of “Negroes” and “fairies” at a time when both groups were seen as inferior by “polite society,” which preferred to keep its distance from both.
West was also a champion of free speech and gay rights. Her 1926 Broadway play, Sex, whose main character was a prostitute (or, as West might say, “a woiking goil”) was shut down by law enforcement authorities after it played for nearly a year to capacity audiences. The subsequent controversy led to a New York state law (the so-called “Wales Padlock Law”) that effectively forbade the portrayal of homosexuality in theatres, and the threat of its enforcement remained for four decades.
Yet West tried to fight it. She went to jail in defense of Sex and used a later play, The Pleasure Man, to challenge the law in 1930. (The prosecution ended in a hung jury.) Her play about gay life, The Drag, never made it to Broadway, but she saw it as a pioneering educational effort. She later wrote about it:“I admit that in my play ‘Drag’ I was a little premature. The public is still too childlike to face like grown-ups the problem of homo-sexuality. How few are the people who even know what the word means? Because of this universal ignorance I wrote ‘Drag’ with the intention of taking it to all the theaters in the country to teach the people.”Reacting to these words, Duke University theatre scholar John Clum said (in his book, Still Acting Gay):“Mae West presents herself as a noble sex educator bringing the truth of homosexuality to the entire nation via her cast of Greenwich Village drag queens. If the play was banned in New Jersey and New York City, one can imagine what would happen in the Bible Belt. The Drag was much more a piece of exploitation for West, but she does not stand far outside the world she represents. The woman who always presented herself as a sexual outlaw is allowing one group of gay men, also sexual outlaws, to play themselves. For 1928, this is a dangerous play. It would be forty years before anything this openly honest about one segment of gay life appeared on the legitimate stage.”By the time the controversy over the sexually subversive content of West’s plays – which she wrote, produced, directed, and starred in – was winding down, she was on her way to California to become a Hollywood sensation. Along the way, she discovered Cary Grant, starred in about a dozen films, found herself banned from radio for 12 years (including the entire decade of the 1940s), and became the model for myriad Halloween costumes and female impersonators.
It is in this context that Claudia Shear’s much-lauded play (five Tony® Award nominations, five Drama Desk nominations, a Theatre World award for Shear, and 352 performances on Broadway) finds its foundation.
Emily Skinner plays the dual roles of Mae West and her fervent fan, Jo (both played in the original production by the playwright, Shear), while Hugh Nees and J. Fred Shiffman play 16 male roles between them – managers, husbands, boyfriends, lawyers, pianists, and more.
The play moves effortlessly back and forth from the present day to various periods of Mae West’s life and career. Jo meets Charlie, another fan (played by Nees), while visiting West’s grave in Brooklyn. They bond over their common obsession, becoming friends and sharing pleasant times together. The friendship is threatened when it begins to become too intimate and when Jo discovers Charlie’s closely-held secret.
An audience member looking for Heavy Significance in Dirty Blonde might be disappointed, but one who seeks little more than fun entertainment (with a heavy dose of nostalgia) will be pleased. The play deals not with Difficult Questions but – to the extent it reaches below the surface – with the little questions that each of us faces in life, the questions that help us determine who we are: what makes us tick and what makes us confident.
At nearly two hours without intermission, Dirty Blonde could be tedious if it just plodded along, telling Mae West’s story chronologically. With seamless scene changes (often supplemented by atmospheric photographic projections) and numerous and flashy costumes, however, the play’s dual plots zoom along. Dirty Blonde seems to be over as quickly as it has begun. A playing-the-dozens-like exchange of Mae West’s sassiest well-known aphorisms (“When women go wrong, men go right after them.” “When caught between two evils, I pick the one I never tried before.” “It’s better to get looked over than overlooked.”) leaves the crowd wanting more, much more.
Dirty Blonde will be running for almost two months at Signature Theatre in Arlington. If word gets around quickly, however, tickets will become scarce, as patrons want to see it more than once. As Mae West said, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”
Dirty Blonde, directed by Jeremy Skidmore, continues at the ARK Theatre at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, through October 4. Show times are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $47 to $71 and available by calling Ticketmaster at 703-573-7328 or visiting www.signature-theatre.org.
Signature’s 20th anniversary season continues with Show Boat, I Am My Own Wife, Sweeney Todd, [title of show], the world premiere of Sycamore Trees, and the world premiere run of “First You Dream” The Kander & Ebb Concert.
Production photos (above right, Emily Skinner as Mae West; above left, J. Fred Shiffman as Frank Wallace) by Scott Suchman; used with permission of Signature Theatre.
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