Way Out West

There's theater, and there's great theater, and Dirty Blonde though enlivened by excellent performances and Arizona Theatre Company's clever staging is just theater. Not even the best work of our biggest and brightest can make more of this pleasant trifle, a sort-of biography of screen star Mae West.

Dirty Blonde gets off to an awkward start with a peculiar, presentational framing device, but spins out into some satisfying sketches that appear at first to have nothing to do with one another. The vignettes some about West, others about a pair of present-day West fans dovetail into a sweet-natured, often amusing love story with a huzzah that's merry if predictable.

Claudia Shear's long one-act play tells the nonlinear tale of Jo, a would-be actress and office temp worker, and Charlie, a repressed film nerd with a secret life. Both are obsessed with Mae West, who turns up in flashbacks, some of which involve Charlie, who knew her slightly during her final days. Their mutual obsession leads to the kind of quirky romance that only happens in stage plays; while we watch it unfold, we also get peeks into West's career, which began in vaudeville and traversed stage and screen.

What's most fascinating about West is the grotesque she became, but Shear only allows us a glimpse of the whacked-out troglodyte Mae West who, in her 80s, still considered herself a bombshell. Still, that glimpse says enough about what West finally was: a geriatric freak show, propped up by musclemen chorus boys in a cheesy Vegas lounge act and playing a 90-year-old ingénue in the cinematic sex farce Sextette.

The bits about West are less a tribute than a profile of a cunning, egotistical schemer who sold sex appeal where there was little talent. When Charlie says, after meeting the movie star, "For a second she almost seemed like a real person," it's Shear summing up West's artful artifice; when Jo and Charlie debate whether West should have packed it in earlier, she's letting us see how West became a joke as well as a legend.

Shear quotes plenty of West's best-known laugh lines: "I used to be Snow White, but I drifted"; "Beulah, peel me a grape!" and, of course, "Come up sometime, and see me!" But Shear's own lines are often funnier, and the big clinch at the end of her story is stranger than anything in Sextette. Her story is episodic and sometimes uneven, but she's fashioned a wildly stylish backstage routine that tells brilliantly the story of West's early vaudeville career. Mostly, though, the Mae West tribute is less dramatically satisfying, and is incidental to Shear's story about an oddball couple and the mysterious secret of our leading man.

If it's unclear in the script why Jo changes her mind about Charlie's peculiar predilection, I didn't care, because I was so taken by Lisa Koch's performance as Jo, whom Koch makes both cynical and sweetly naive. Peter Brown's Charlie is subtly ambiguous but still a distinct character. And Dan Hiatt, who plays everyone else an oily Broadway producer, an Italian cemetery attendant and, most entertainingly, a sniffy drag queen who performs a bawdy number called "Oh My How We Posé" is some kind of remarkable.

The film clips of West that were used in the Broadway production are gone, and Koch's Mae is more an interpretation than an impersonation, a fact that director Jeff Steitzer underscores in a clever dressing scene that spans two generations. When the thin love story begins to meander, Steitzer dazzles us with a wall of movie posters or a quick loop of dialogue from one of West's films. Would that he had found a way to block the distracting scene changes using someone other than stagehands.

If Dirty Blonde's story is as slender as Mae West's talent, it's also a pleasing light entertainment that's improved by an accomplished cast. The revelation here is that we think we're watching a biography of a movie star, but in fact we're watching a pleasant love story with a winning hint of mystery.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela