Mae in January

For the moment, Western drama seems to have become Mae West-ern drama. West made a cameo appearance in the York Theatre's recent Jolson & Company (not seen by me); Dalí's famous portrait of her face as a seductively furnished bedroom inspired set designer Neil Patel's best moment in Lobster Alice. The rowdy revival of her own first play, Sex, has just been extended through January. And now comes Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde, directed and "co-conceived" by James Lapine, which alternates dramatized snippets of West's career with the story of a contemporary boy and girl who both worship West, but can't decide which one has the right to dress like her.

The craze has its validity. Apart from being an artist of exceptional interest in her own time, West makes a highly viable icon for an era when definitions of both sex and art are widely contested. We don't know what's permissible and impermissible anymore, or even what's male and what's female. A bundle of paradoxes and confusions in herself, West's admirable gift was to embody—surely the mot juste—everything that confuses us, on both topics, in one smirking epigram, or one roll of her corseted hips. However crude when she was starting out or grotesque when she got much older, her sex appeal was always a matter of comedy. Yet West was at the center of not one but three major censorship uproars: Sex was shut down by the NYPD (largely to prevent her bringing in her queer-celebrating second play, The Drag). She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel made so much money, and caused such clamor among the bluenoses, that they were the chief cause of Hollywood's tightening the Production Code in 1933. And in the late '30s, after an appearance on Edgar Bergen's radio show, she was virtually banned from broadcasting. (She told his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, "Come up and play in my woodpile.")

The irony was that West's sensibility was not too new for the censors whose hackles she raised but too old—the standard repartee of burlesque and lower-class vaudeville, circa 1890, with its standard physical accompaniment of raised eyebrows and undulating shoulders. That she used the style to make herself, as performer and writer, a locus for a wide range of sex-related issues shouldn't obscure the fact that she was a period piece, so to speak, from the very start. (Shear's play suggests that the source of West's '90s style was her controlling mother.) She stands as a teasingly ambiguous rebuke to the fake sophistication and postwar disillusionment of the Jazz Age. We knew all about it before, her persona says; there was no need to topple monarchies and invent modernism just to face a little reality. Paramount, which put her firmly in the 1890s from her first starring role on, knew exactly what it was doing when it tried to obtain for her the film rights to Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession; one can easily imagine her both justifying the procuress's trade and defending her daughter from it. (She is one of the few female stars of the 1930s to willingly play scenes in which she nurtures younger and prettier women.)

Icon game: Claudia Shear and Kevin Chamberlin in Dirty Blonde
photo: Joan Marcus
Icon game: Claudia Shear and Kevin Chamberlin in Dirty Blonde

Details

Dirty Blonde
By Claudia Shear
New York Theatre Workshop
83 East 4th Street
212-460-5475

Sex
By Mae West
Gershwin Hotel
7 East 27th Street
212-439-8122

Wrong Mountain
By David Hirson
Eugene O'Neill Theatre
Broadway and 49th Street
212-239-6200

That she was a conscious archaism of course only got the censors angrier. The self-important hate nothing more than being mocked, and West's Bowery-melodrama fun kicked them right in the center of their equally Victorian (but more bourgeois) sensibilities, where the Freud-ian subtleties of a Philip Barry or S.N. Behrman would pass them by unnoticed. Hence theviolent reaction. West had a wide range of sympathies, and her jokes can cut in a great many directions. African Americans, even the giggling maid who peels her a grape, are more like human beings in her pictures than in others of the time; homosexuality, though unmentionable after the police debacle of The Drag, has a persistent, quietly hovering presence. Abortion, prostitution, and battered-wife situations crop up glancingly; a tragic subplot of Sex contains vague hints of then-incurable venereal disease. And at the center, whether the character is called Margy Lamont, Diamond Lil, or Klondike Annie, there is always Mae West, the woman who revels in male attention but has no interest in becoming an object of male ownership.

In another sense, though, West is feminism's camp opposite—the heroine of Parker Tyler's gloriously convoluted theory that she appealed to male homosexuals because her matronly look and throwback attitudes represented a gay man's mother taking on his postures to signify her acceptance of his ways. Certainly a lot of gay men over the decades have taken on her gestures and appearance. The twist in Dirty Blonde is that the male character, played by Kevin Chamberlin, who we're set up to believe is the typical West-imitating drag queen, turns out to be a straight cross-dresser, a white male heterosexual who finds freedom in the '90s gown and picture hat just as the actress manqué played by Shear does. It's a love affair of dueling Mae Wests. Given the flashes of biography with which it alternates, it's also a joke on West's own narcissism. The thought of two Mae Wests clinching in the dark would have enthralled her.

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