You will probably recall a few of her saucy lines:
Woman: "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!"
Mae West: "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie."
Woman: "Do you believe in love at first sight?"
West: "I don’t know, but it saves an awful lot of time."
Cary Grant: "Haven’t you ever met a man who could make you happy?"
West: "Sure, lots of times."
And, of course, West originated the line repeated by every other comedian to this day: "Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"
West was a tough little girl, as two of her ardent fans put it at the beginning of the entertaining and thoughtful Dirty Blonde, now on stage at the Wilma Theater — the kind, they say, who doesn’t care if she ever meets your mother. The kind who, in a line that summons images of West’s voluptuous saunter, "walks like she knows you’re watching."
Dirty Blonde starts with sketches that seem disconnected and a framing device
that’s not quite clear. It combines a bio-play that traces the highlights of West’s career with a contemporary romance between two misfits who idolize her.
Threaded together under Ethan McSweeny’s astute directorial hand, the sketches create a genial evening of theater that also serves as an informative primer on the life and career of a one-of-a-kind showbiz personality. It is also a fascinating exploration of fandom, pondering the question: Why do people dedicate their lives to worshipping celebrities?
West very carefully built her personality, step by step. She used her flippant ad-libs as a vaudeville performer (like "accidentally" breaking a bra strap in her bow), her revolving-door lovers, her fiercely independent ego, her quick and witty quips, and her blatantly suggestive lines onstage and four-letter-word mouth off. She wrote plays for herself — one called Sex about a "working girl" and another called Drag — both of which were closed and got her tried and briefly jailed for obscenity. West made pots of money in real estate, she gave money and jobs to old friends and thrown-over lovers, and even at 80, she persisted in pursuing her stage career.
"She was from Brooklyn, she was short, she certainly wasn’t young or thin, and it took her 30 years, but she made it anyway," as Jo tells Charlie in the play.
As the play admits, once the persona was created, West played it in every new play, every new picture, onstage and off, though over time there was little performance underneath what had become an act.
West was also a smart businesswoman who had no difficulty coping with the economic vicissitudes of the Great Depression head-on. Thus, she is deemed to have rescued Paramount from bankruptcy with her first starring movie, She Done Him Wrong, in 1933. The film grossed $3 million, an incredible sum for those days. Seven years earlier, she had made her mark on Broadway with Sex, which won her immediate fame when she was arrested. The notoriety stemming from the arrest carried over to the success of She Done Him Wrong, for which she chose the then-unknown Cary Grant to be her leading man.
And, oh yes, let us not forget the propensity of this incredibly talented woman for creating one-liners that even today put Neil Simon to shame.
The play’s structure cross-cuts between West’s story and the pleasures and tribulations in the developing friendship between two of her most ardent fans. Being themselves outcasts from the world of the beautiful and sexually fulfilled, West’s spunky, daring glamour represents everything Charlie and Jo are not. What more apt way for these two to meet than at West’s last resting place, a Queens mausoleum.
What better way to insure that their chance meeting won’t be their last than to have Charlie work in a film archive — an irresistible "hotbed of obsession" stocked with West memorabilia. It is this obsession of fans of the famous that adds yet another layer, and sometimes a distraction, to the story line. While it takes more than a half-dozen male characters to spin out West’s life story and deal with the lumps and bumps in Charlie and Jo’s relationship, the cast is small.
Still, three actors are better than one. Kevin Carolan and Albert Macklin as all the men are so good and versatile that they’re more enjoyable to watch than a half-dozen performers.
As with various other distinctive and oft-impersonated stars, it’s easy to adopt Mae West’s mannerisms but impossible to recreate her essence. Ryan Dunn’s performance as Mae is a less-than-perfect impression, and inevitably seems flat when compared to memories of the real thing — and those memories are often evoked, since the script draws on much of West’s original material.
Andrew Jackness’ set is deceptively simple with a backdrop of straight and curved shifting flat sculptures, which, when combined, become endowed with suggestive meanings.
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, because the final image is a perfect ending for West’s life story. Seeing the weird glamour idol of Mae kissing herself summons up the narcissistic vortex the real woman disappeared into, albeit with the kind of reckless grandeur that the ancient pagan gods would have rewarded by turning her into a constellation.
The Wilma Theater
Broad and Spruce streets
Through Oct. 20