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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.

`Dirty Blonde’

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

autobiographical

play "Blown Sideways Through Life" and co-author James Lapine

did imagine just that and came up with a lovely play that many

(including

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

little

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

Brooklyn-born) star.

To be sure, Mae West impersonators are a dime a dozen, but Shear

avoided

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

interprets

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

suggestive

one-liners, you can be assured that Ryan Dunn, the interpreter of

the West/Jo characters in this George Street Theater production,

arrives

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

Michael

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

between

Jo and Charlie (Kevin Carolan), a Midwestern-born library film

archivist.

Ironically and cleverly, it is Charlie’s job and his "private

thing" regarding Mae West that adds luster to the new

relationship.

It is hard not to be moved by these two oddballs who find mutual

affection,

compatibility, and more to the point a sensual delight in their

obsession

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

characterizations.

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

Jane Cox.

Shear and Lapine have fashioned a tenderly developed love story,

punctuated

with sassy songs from West’s films, that is as irrepressible as was

the woman who was hauled into court for her risque play,

"Sex."

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:

"He

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’

interpretations

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

Dirty Blonde, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

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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