Wild West


Dirty Blonde, Claudia Shear’s play about the legend that was Mae West, is like a hearty combination platter served with benevolence, wit and a side of arsenic. It dabbles in territory patented by the tabloidy E! True Hollywood Story while coasting through a moving, bittersweet love story. It’s almost a new genre: the docucomedy. In less-competent hands than Shear’s and without a good cast, it might be too fat to walk. But here, opening the Unicorn Theatre’s 29th season, it’s marvelous.

Shear first appeared on the theater scene with Blown Sideways Through Life, a biting autobiography that traced her suspicious inability to keep a job. Thank God she couldn’t — had she landed something permanent, she might not have gone on to write Dirty Blonde. (If wishes were orders, she’d be churning out a new play a year.) Though the Broadway production was shut out at 2000’s Tony Awards, the play obviously has nine lives.

Dirty Blonde introduces dishwater blonde Teri Adams as Jo, a chunky misfit whose truest love is actress and groundbreaking playwright Mae West. On one of her frequent sojourns to West’s crypt outside Manhattan (where she always leaves a bottle of pungent perfume), Jo bumps into Charlie (Phil Fiorini). He has a little more reason for his crush on West; as a starstruck kid holding a scrapbook, he met and then regularly visited West in her Los Angeles apartment.

People bond over less-colorful things than a long-dead movie star. Jo and Charlie share a photographic memory of West’s movies and misfires (such as her scary Las Vegas show in the ’60s) and can zing the star’s most famous lines off one another like bullets. When Charlie shares his dog-eared scrapbook with Jo, he’s revealing more of himself than of West — he’s vulnerable and on a slippery slope toward something like love.

Shear’s handiwork doesn’t stop there. The show zig-zags back and forth in time, with Adams playing West at several career junctures: as a vaudeville afterthought; as a zaftig headliner; as an ambitious writer; and, once preserved in jelly by Max Factor, a camp icon. Fiorini adds to his heartfelt Charlie a kaleidoscope of characters — from W.C. Fields (who despised West) to an effeminate chorus boy from West’s play about homosexuals, The Drag.

Third on the bill is Jim Korinke, who dizzyingly and dazzlingly plays about a dozen roles. He’s a silent-movie pianist at the opening of the show and in turn becomes several members of West’s adoring entourage — her husband and manager, her gay confidante and her first show-business costar, among others. Many of these personalities have a common denominator: They’re Mae’s mirrors, assuring her of her worth.

Though she plays only two people, Adams has her hands full. She captures a Mae West that the star might not have shown anyone — one whose bawdy persona was brilliant performance art that masked a woman under the influence of everyday doubts. Her bitchy tongue and formidable sexual energy were nothing more (or less) than self-preservation. What’s a woman without her womanliness?

Giving another in a series of rich performances this year, Fiorini imbues Charlie (who has a secret beyond his scrapbook) with a kind of modesty that’s never bland or beige. In his scenes with Jo, Charlie’s thoughts are clearly racing a second or two ahead of his words as he debates how much he’s going to let her see. Though his other roles in the show are clean and distinct, his Charlie is his most accomplished — he’s simple and very complicated.

Director Cynthia Levin successfully preserves all of Shear’s shifts in time and tone, and the actors stay right in step. (An opening-night snafu involving one of West’s dresses was handled so well by the actors that it forced spontaneous applause.) Levin knows that the play is neither a flat-out comedy nor a standard biography; it’s about the Mae West in everybody — we all imagine ourselves as celebrities, though our fanbase ebbs and flows.

Atif Rome designs the minimalist set as well as Mae’s gown and coats, while Bill Brewer takes on Adams’ contemporary clothes and the guys’ wardrobe. David Kiehl’s sound design spans the Roaring ’20s to yesterday’s traffic jam in midtown Manhattan. Jeffrey Cady’s lighting design shadows Mae with antique stage lights in her youth and window-blind slats at her most elderly. (A scene in a Chinese restaurant, however, isn’t thought through particularly well.) Though the show isn’t a musical, Anthony Edwards is credited as musical director for the few numbers, which are true to West’s saucy patter.

Categories: A&E, Stage