Way Out West

Mae West provides over-the-top inspiration for lovesick geeks in 'Dirty Blonde.'

Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde tickles you with a rollicking account of the rise of lascivious screen siren Mae West, and comforts you with a sweet love story involving modern misfits.

Arizona Theatre Company's likable, versatile three-member cast and its design team put on such an entertaining show that it isn't until you leave the theater and get halfway to your car that you realize what a reprehensible play this is.

The show ostensibly celebrates independence through quirkiness and promotes a courageous disregard for taboos in a search for personal authenticity. In other words, Dirty Blonde tells us it's perfectly OK to be a "character." The problem is, whether you're talking about a figure in a play or the class clown, a character is just a façade, an uneasy balance of honesty and fakery.

And there was hardly anything honest about Mae West except her breasts, if we believe the testimony of costumer Edith Head. Dirty Blonde inadvertently admits this, although the play purports to reveal how West gradually assembled the elements of her stage persona merely by exaggerating her natural inclinations.

Yes, she had a flair for hilarious sexual double entendres. But look at the movies she made in the 1930s: She can't act, her comic timing is off, she is totally divorced from the people around her, and she's all dolled up in costumes that had been unfashionable since the turn of the century. Imagine J.Lo shaking her butt in a poodle skirt and beehive hairdo, and you'll get the incongruity.

Dirty Blonde wittily traces West's career from her early years as a voracious sex kitten doing raunchy numbers in vaudeville to the height of her less than 10-year film career. Along the way, she learns her delivery from a stage director, learns some fashion sense from her mother, and learns to sashay from the stereotypical Greenwich Village queens who surround her. And we glimpse her in old age, when even going to a Chinese restaurant remains a deliberate act of self-creation.

Intercut with all this is the story of two modern-day Mae West fanatics. Jo is a would-be actress with "tough New Yorker" written all over her, except that her life is as empty and aimless as one of Mae West's movies, and men frighten her. Charlie is a gentle film librarian who, as a teenager, met the elderly West and has been smitten ever since. Like Jo, he hasn't been successful with the opposite sex. On the terms of this play, we know he isn't gay, because he doesn't swish. But he does have one odd little habit: shutting himself in his bedroom and dressing up in Mae West gowns.

Their budding, awkward geek romance is quite endearing, and Lisa Koch and Peter Brown play Jo and Charlie with both tenderness and wry, self-aware humor. Koch doubles as Mae West, and although she isn't Rubenesque enough, Koch is better than the original: sharp and commanding, plugged in to her surroundings and the overall story. Koch does a brilliant job of portraying a self-absorbed woman while remaining fully integrated with the two actors around her.

The other actor is Dan Hiatt, who, like Brown, plays a variety of well-delineated characters, most of them men spinning in West's orbit. Director Jeff Steitzer keeps the energy level up throughout the play's 110 unbroken minutes, without slighting the finer points of Jo and Charlie's relationship. Vicki Smith's set design gets the job done, but is in the stripped-down style of the work she did for ATC's Master Class rather than the richer environs she provided for Fences and Death of a Salesman (admittedly more static plays in terms of locale).

Full of fun, Dirty Blonde is an entertaining show despite its central dishonesty. Jo and Charlie feel free only when they don West's clothing and mimic her personality--which itself was largely a put-on. They find freedom, but they can't possibly achieve individuality while modeling themselves on a dead celebrity.

Dirty Blonde ends in a barrage of Mae West's most famous lines, but playwright Shear omits one West zinger that would subvert her entire play: "I'm no model lady. A model's just an imitation of the real thing."

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