KPBS AIRDATE: August 01, 2003
The come-hither voice, the platinum hair, the swaggering gait, the corseted, buxom figure. They were unmistakable, and easy to impersonate. But the real thing was The Real Thing… well, more or less. In 1893, Mary Jane West was born a dirty blonde, but she refashioned herself as a solid-gold bombshell.
In Claudia Shear’s play, “Dirty Blonde,” we watch Mae West evolve from a third-rate vaudevillian into a legend — completely self-styled, self-driven and self-involved. She was one of the first real feminists, a take-no-prisoners self-promoter who wrote her own material, produced her own shows, flouted all convention (including marriage), courted controversy, hung with outcasts, and went to jail on obscenity charges. By 1935, she was the highest paid woman in the country.
Shear’s play, which was a surprise hit on Broadway, is making its debut at the Old Globe Theatre, starring the much-loved San Diego native, Kathy Najimy. The piece gives us the acts-and-facts of West’s story, but not much of her inner life or motivations. We get a glimpse of her open-mindedness, generosity, quick-wittedness and dogged determination. And we see that, once she created her famous persona, she refused to let it go, even appearing in a movie at age 85, still trying, pathetically, to be a vixen. She had to be propped up in her dotage, but she was gussied up like a vamp. She became a caricature of herself, which is often how she’s remembered. But she really was an original.
Despite all this juicy material, the most interesting part of Shear’s play is the parallel world it creates: the love story between two modern-day Mae West fans who meet at her gravesite on her birthday. Outsiders themselves, they’ve both nurtured the moxie of Mae, and they help each other to let it all hang out. The piece flip-flops in time, and Najimy darts back and forth from one era and character to the other, playing the inimitable West and her ‘tough-girl’ admirer. It’s a terrific, nuanced and engaging performance, excellently matched by those of Bob Stillman, a rubber-limbed chameleon who plays a mean piano, and Kevin Chamberlin, who morphs into a sad-sack loser, a boxer or a chorine with a twist of his big, bald head. The show is an actor’s dream, and reprising their Broadway portrayals, each is spectacular. Though the men are the fireflies whirling around Mae’s dazzling light, we learn more about them than we do either of the women. Ultimately, it’s Chamberlain who breaks our hearts, with his sad-sack demeanor and his long-hidden longings and secrets regarding Mae. The direction, by James Lapine and Gareth Hendee, is wonderfully inventive, with remarkable, ever-changing lighting by David Lander. Though the play may be flawed, it stands up well to a West philosophy: “It’s better to be looked over than overlooked.”
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.