Meeting Mae West

Dirty Blonde

Rated 3.0 Sometimes, two playwrights write about the same slice of time and space and come up with scripts that couldn’t be more different. Take Claudia Shear’s Dirty Blonde (now at the Sacramento Theatre Company) and Arthur Miller’s The American Clock (currently at River Stage). They’re both set in America during the 1920s and 1930s, and both are spiced with vaudeville song and dance. Miller’s play has a huge cast and offers a panoramic view of the stock-market crash and the long, difficult Depression and social disorder that followed.

Dirty Blonde, on the other hand, is a cheery show with a cast of three. The show is primarily celebrity homage to Mae West, the buxom actress who always played the sexpot. She did it with so much attitude—and deft delivery of the comeback line, dripping with innuendo—that she became a legend.

To some extent, it’s a bio-play. We see West in vaudeville, on Broadway, making movies, and in old age (browsing through a scrapbook with an adoring young fan, z-z-z). But it’s mostly her public persona; we never learn much about what made her tick. Shear makes a retro argument that West was a pioneer. She wrote her own scripts dealing with sex and gay characters when both subjects were taboo, and she got them staged on Broadway. And she created her own character: the “bad” woman who was nonetheless highly sought after. We’ll grant that she was uninhibited before most Americans knew they had inhibitions, but an early feminist? That’s a bit of a stretch. She was in it for the stardom.

Dirty Blonde also wants to be a musical—except that there are only a few numbers with music and dancing. Stranger still, it tries (a little too hard) to be a romantic comedy. West’s appearances onstage are framed around the story of two awkward, lonely lovers finding each other. It’s the sort of sweet storyline West typically skewered with a ribald one-liner.

Actress Jamie Jones is a hoot as West, and she’s also good as the young lover Jo. Peter Story is funny as the film scholar who gets to know Jo once they discover their common fascination with West. Versatile Matt K. Miller stylishly dishes up 15 small roles and nearly steals the show.

But ultimately, the fun wears thin. Director Barbara Bosch wisely stages the play nonstop (1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission), because this cupcake probably would collapse if it came out of the oven midway through.