The dirty blonde in question is the ineffable Mae West ... and also, an unknown actress named Jo, who is a fan of the great erotic comedienne -- that's "fan" in the root sense of the word: fanatic.
As anyone who follows theater knows by now, the role is played by Becky Allen. Now, Becky (with a stage icon, as with the higher reaches of nobility, first names are a sign of respect) has enough fans herself to rate over-the-title billing. Nonetheless, there are some jaded, weary sophisticates out there who will lift a jaundiced eye brow and think, "Oh, but I've seen it."
Well, you haven't. This is a remarkable performance, not in the way that Becky's performances are always remarkable; that is to say, campy, raucous and crowd-pleasing. As Jo/Mae, Becky shows a depth and versatility as an actress and as a comedienne that one often sensed, but was rarely allowed to glimpse.
This subtlety shines forth, not only in the part of Jo -- which calls for a simpler, more naturalistic approach than we are accustomed to from Becky. Her Mae is a complex, hilarious and ultimately tragic heroine. For instance, Becky's incarnation of Mae, when she's long-since gone into retirement, but still living through her vamp persona, is outrageously funny and exquisitely poignant -- without the least cloying aftertaste.
Her right- and left-hand men for this enjoyable outing could not be better chosen. Bob Edes plays Charlie -- a second Mae West fan in the present-time story (which, for all its nice, intimate moments feels like a subplot, overwhelmed by the blaze of Mae's picaresque adventures and raffish courage). Edes also doubles as a bewildering array of side characters -- for instance, there's a cameo as an unlikely pugilistic boy-toy that, by itself, is worth the price of admission. Recently transplanted New York actor Charlie Owens is a delight as Lord High Everything Else (from mincing queen dresser to stuttering ex-Vaudeville comic). These two performers are utterly plastic -- that is to say, like the old comic-book hero Plastic Man, who could transform himself into anything at will.
At any rate, Charlie -- when he was an introverted 17-year-old Midwestern virgin -- made a pilgrimage to L.A. in order to try to meet his fantasy dream goddess: the ultimate "tough girl." By a fluke, he succeeds, giving us a wonderful sequence of scenes that show Mae in her declining years. Struggling for a way to capture her bizarre ruined allure, Charlie tells the audience she doesn't look old and she doesn't look young. She looks "unold." The rest of the play is a flashback bio of Mae's rise from a witty, rebellious, man-eating, second-rate Vaudevillian through her triumph in Diamond Lil (which she wrote) and on to Hollywood.
There's a fascinating, though perhaps apocryphal, account of the creation of Mae West as we've come to know her. After Mae had received yet another drubbing in the press, her domineering, yet supportive mother persuaded her to wear one of her own out-of-date gowns, with big hair, corset and all. (This was the 1920s, age of the bobbed, free-waisted flapper.) The sly, lascivious, totally anachronistic image took. As Charlie says, "She found what worked for her, what she was supposed to be, and she froze it."
Mae's trials and tribulations are intercut with the troubled romance that develops between the lowly vestals of her temple, who need the enchantment of her cast-off garments to release their own sexual assertiveness. The ambiguous boundary between the two worlds dissolves more and more as the play continues.
Adding variety to the proceedings are a series of enjoyable musical numbers, mostly drawn from Mae's career (Nina Bozak did the choreography, Harry Mayronne Jr. is musical director). Mae's fabulous threads are courtesy of Roy Haylock, while Trish McLain provided the other excellent costumes. Constantinos Kritikos designed the striking set, which somehow manages to evoke a decadent boudoir and a mausoleum (and, subliminally, a padded cell) among other things.
In the end, the play sort of gallops off into the sunset with a not-very-believable consummation by the chummy Mae West obsessives. Not that it matters much; it's as though the visuals take over. And in that regard, the final image is a perfect ending for Mae's life story. Seeing the weird glamour idol of Mae kissing herself summons up the narcissistic vortex the real Mae disappeared into -- albeit, with the kind of reckless grandeur that the ancient pagan gods would have rewarded by turning her into a constellation.
- Role players: Becky Allen (middle) juggles two roles while Charlie Owens (left) and Bob Edes handle four apiece in Carl Walker's excellent mounting of Dirty Blonde at Le Petit.