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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the November 6, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Who could imagine that two misfit singles, who meet
at Mae West’s mausoleum in Queens, New York, might build a future
together? Claudia Shear, the actor-author of the hit one-woman
play "Blown Sideways Through Life" and co-author James Lapine
did imagine just that and came up with a lovely play that many
myself) considered the best new play to hit town in 2000.
"Dirty Blonde" takes an unlikely annual pilgrimage on Mae
West’s birthday as the catalyst for an endearing romance, with a
biography of West woven through. In its first productions Off-Broadway
and then on Broadway, Shear chose to invoke the figure and style of
West by playing the title role herself. She also played Jo, her young
Brooklyn woman obsessed with the 20th century’s most infamous (and
To be sure, Mae West impersonators are a dime a dozen, but Shear
parody as a propellant. Instead this is a disarming play with touching
characters that puts an unusually witty spin on the West legend and
what that legend has represented to her legions of fans. Whoever
Mae and Jo will be helped immeasurably by the sheer audacity and the
honesty of Shear’s vision. What with the deluge of now famous
one-liners, you can be assured that Ryan Dunn, the interpreter of
the West/Jo characters in this George Street Theater production,
well armed with funny lines.
While Dunn has a secure hold on West’s laid back, insinuating, sensual
style, she is most affecting as Jo, the office temp and occasional
actor who is destined to meet her soul mate in the most unlikely of
places. Dunn, whose curves and verve are employed to utmost advantage,
scores better as the aging, more clearly-defined West. You can expect
that with the show’s run just beginning, she will soon affect as sharp
an image for the young West as she already has for Jo. Costumer
Sharpe’s frumpy dress for the younger West is no help, although his
other costumes are appropriately evocative.
Dirty Blonde" moves back and forth between West’s
career and the awkward, yet poignantly developing, relationship
Jo and Charlie (Kevin Carolan), a Midwestern-born library film
Ironically and cleverly, it is Charlie’s job and his "private
thing" regarding Mae West that adds luster to the new
It is hard not to be moved by these two oddballs who find mutual
compatibility, and more to the point a sensual delight in their
with their idol. As sweetly nerdy as Carolan is as Charlie, he also
brings a vaudevillian’s polish and versatility to seven other roles,
including W.C. Fields, a boxer, a producer, West’s accompanist, Harry,
a drag queen and a muscle man. Having understudied and played these
roles on Broadway, Carolan delights with an impressive set of
Also with seven colorful characters to interpret is Albert Macklin,
who gets the most mileage and our affection as West’s long-time friend
Joe Frisco, and as the helpful film director who teaches West how
"NOT to act." Under Ethan McSweeny’s slick direction, the
double story moves along humorously and seamlessly within the simple,
suggestive settings by Andrew Jackson and the striking lighting by
Shear and Lapine have fashioned a tenderly developed love story,
with sassy songs from West’s films, that is as irrepressible as was
the woman who was hauled into court for her risque play,
When the judge tells her, "Be careful, or I’ll charge you with
contempt," she retorts, "I’m trying hard not to show it."
The life and career of the queen of the double entendre has served
to provide a double life for two love-worthy people. I can think of
no better way to recommend this show than with West’s own words:
who hesitates is last."
Not to be missed at George Street is the "Dirty Blonde" homage
display in the audience lounge. The exhibit, created in partnership
with the Livingston Avenue Gallery, offers various artists’
of Mae West. Amidst the art, the posting of such West gems will amuse
you: "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful." "The
best way to behave is misbehave." "I’m a woman of very few
words, but lots of actions."
— Simon Saltzman
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Ryan Dunn and Kevin Carolan star
in the co-production with the Wilma Theater of Philadelphia, directed
by Ethan McSweeny. $26 to $50. Show runs to November 24.
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