Mae in January

The trouble with Dirty Blondeis that it goes no further. We get a quick survey-analysis of West's career. And we get scenes, some touching, from the two Westians' improbable love affair. But all that holds these parallel strands to-gether is Lapine's creamy-smooth, visually hieratic production. Shear, brash and mellow, is always fun to watch; Chamberlin, a wistful pink boulder of a man, matches her ably. Bob Stillman handles the musical chores, plus a string of small parts, with appealing nimbleness. If you wonder later why they bothered, it won't be because you had a bad time.

Much the same applies to Elyse Singer's staging of Sex, brasher and coarser than Dirty Blonde, but equally straightforward in its innocent contemporaneity. Here West is saluted as an anti-censorship heroine—both acts open with excerpts from the 1926 obscenity trial that closed Sex—but her persona, and her writing, are praised as early avatars of camp. At its best, Singer's staging is high-quality travesty in the old style; at its worst it degenerates into mere shouting. But Carolyn Bauemler's Westian heroine sustains a sexy dignity inside the staging's exaggerations, and so do T. Ryder Smith as her English lover, Cynthia Darlow as the dowager she one-ups, and Andrew Elvis Miller as the rich boy she nearly snags. If the noise level's high for such a small space, so is the authenticity, once you peel away the outer grapeskin of camp intentions.

** If only one could peel away a few layers of verbiage from David Hirson's Wrong Mountain, a play that could use a little of West's common sense, and a great many fewer speeches that display the author's interest in grandstanding. But this grape might turn out to be Peer Gynt's onion: Keep peeling and you'd find nothing at its core. It dismays me greatly because I admired Hirson's previous play, La Bête, which was essentially the same story stood on its head, only in rhymed couplets and 17th-century costume, which gave director Richard Jones chances for brilliance the current item never offers. This time around, an ultra-snobbish poet, infuriated that his ex-wife has taken up with a wealthy commercial playwright, bets that he can write a successful play and have it produced within six months, which leads him to a playwriting competition that in its ineptitude makes most such enterprises look like the heyday of the Moscow Art Theatre.

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

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Though Hirson's nonstop verbal cascading can't help tossing up a few delicious sprays of comedy, his own play wouldn't get very far in such a competition because it's so rooted in falsity. Neither his poet hero nor anyone else seems to know what a play is, other than a middle-class Broadway matinee special, nor why anybody might write one for reasons other than money. They keep flogging the idea that there's a thriving big-money market for nonmusical plays, which hasn't been true for 20 years. They all also apparently know an obscure quote from Strindberg, in which he condemns the theater as a "biblia pauperum," though no one explains why it's so evil for the poor to have an illustrated Bible, or why anyone should care what a semi-psychotic Swedish scribbler said a century ago. Even more disheartening, the poet ultimately falls in love with the magic of the theater, thus depriving Hirson of the chance to satirize some of the contemporary performance practices that make playwrights' lives a nightmare. As a painful capstone, the hero composes a poem to his cast in "asymptotic dactyls"—which turn out to be nothing but standard iambic-pentameter rhymed couplets. Ron Rifkin handles the hateful hero's logorrhea with passionate exactitude; Michael Winter, Daniel Davis, Daniel Jenkins, and Bruce Norris make the most of their rarish opportunities to get a word in edgewise. But it's embarrassing to watch Hirson carry on his quarrel with the theater in public; he could have used the time to write a play instead.

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