The lower depths of Off-Broadway are infested with a particularly irritating subspecies of theater, the bioplay. Wherever there's a producer with no money, a writer with no imagination and a handy biography to be raided for material, this pest is sure to breed. At last, however, someone has come up with a surefire pesticide. If Claudia Shear's wonderful Mae West play, "Dirty Blonde," doesn't rid us of this scourge, nothing will. "Dirty Blonde" exposes all those lazy cut-and-paste stage biographies for what they are. Using the same basic elements as the typical banal bioplay, Shear creates a small marvel of humor and humanity. The difference has nothing to do with money. The cast is tiny - just Shear, with Kevin Chamberlain and Bob Stillman playing all the bit parts. Douglas Stein's sets are simple and Spartan - a receding box with a few props and pieces of furniture. Most of the effects are created by David Lander's supple lighting. Even the play is not all that different from the run-of-the-mill stage biography. Shear takes us through all the main features of West's delightfully disgraceful career, from Brooklyn to Hollywood to the strange afterlife of an aging icon. "Dirty Blonde" even manages to get in all the famous Westisms, from "Goodness had nothing to do with it" to "When a girl goes bad, men go right after her."
But instead of just trotting through West's life, Shear and director James Lapine use it to illuminate the lives of two of her present-day fans, Jo and Charlie, who meet at her grave. Jo, played by Shear and used as both a narrator and a character, is a proud, feisty single woman - West is the "tough girl" she's determined to be. Charlie, in Kevin Chamberlain's richly sympathetic portrayal, is a nerdy film archivist whose life has never quite lived up the thrill of meeting West when he was 17. "Dirty Blonde" creates a series of brilliant counterpoints between West's pursuit of stardom and her fans' pursuit of love. While their ordinary world brings a touch of reality to her fabulous self-inventions, her iconic glamour lifts their relationship beyond the humdrum. Thus, West's starry image is tempered with a sense of the lonely isolation of her later years. And, on the other hand, the banal lives of Jo and Charlie are sprinkled with a little stardust. All of this is woven together with great aplomb by Lapine, so that the two worlds occupy the stage without confusion and collide only when they're supposed to. Because Shear plays both Mae and Jo, we can see why Charlie is so attracted to a woman who shares so many qualities with his idol. But the true delight of "Dirty Blonde" is that the same thing is happening to Jo. As she slowly discovers, the shy, awkward Charlie also has a surprising amount of West in the private corners of his personality. As their shared pursuit of blond ambition brings Jo and Charlie ever closer, "Dirty Blonde" emerges as a vividly original, genuinely funny and surprisingly moving love story. West's hard-bitten wisecracks give way to a tender and compassionate acceptance of human peculiarities. Hero worship is replaced by an affectionate embrace of ordinary lives. Although West might be shocked to discover it, the conclusion of this lovely play is that, in the end, goodness has everything to do with it.
"Dirty Blonde" is a look into how Mae West got that way and how two of her fans use her life to find meaning in their own lives.
In parallel and intercutting tracks, the show follows the creation of West's persona and two repressed souls who meet at her memorial and grope for happiness.
Written by Claudia Shear and conceived by Shear and director James Lapine, "Dirty Blonde" has moved to Broadway from the New York Theater Workshop on the Lower East Side.
Shear plays both West and Jo, her dedicated fan. Her partner in fandom is Charlie, who is expertly, humorously and touchingly played by Kevin Chamberlin in one of the best performances of the year.
Charlie, a film archivist, meets Jo at West's final resting place in Queens. The third participant is Bob Stillman, who plays a string of colorful types in West's life - her first husband, drag queens who tutored West and were richly rewarded and an old lover who hangs around her L.A. apartment in her last days.
Shear should not be judged on the quality of her West impersonations. They're good enough - but it's the meaning, not the dressing up, that tells. Shear wants to show us a bright, spunky, daring, raw girl going into vaudeville and creating herself.
West incorporated things from then-unknown sides of America - African-American life and gay life. Her movie career began in triumph, with roles opposite Cary Grant and W.C. Fields, before ending with a grotesque refusal to confront the realities of her age with "Sextet."
Shear's aim is to expose, with a sense of humor, the imprisonment of West in her own creation.
The modern side of the story emphasizes Shear's essential thrust: the power of West's myth on other lives. Charlie has intersected with West: when he was 17 he sought her out in her Hollywood apartment.
She takes the boy out for Chinese food (a brilliant scene); she intuits the boy's need for one of her gowns; she has him dress up. He becomes addicted to dressing up as Mae in private. Eventually he and Jo dress up as Mae together and they exchange many of the glances and lines that the raunchy gal devised years ago.
It's a fascinating take on Mae West, a gamely funny and sentimental reading of the bawdy legend as a perpetual source of liberation.
The set, by Douglas Stein, makes the play look like something taking place in a surrealist jewel box. This is unfortunate, as simplicity is the key to this presentation of complexity. Because when director Lapine keeps things simple, "Dirty Blonde" works splendidly.
She muscled her way into the neighborhood in the 1920's, when nobody thought she belonged there. Now here she is again, trying to squeeze in uptown with those ample hips of hers, looking for a spot among the witty Brits and singing animals and dancing gymnasts. And isn't she a sight for glazed eyes? Stand up, boys, and take your hats off. Mae West is back on Broadway.
Miss West has returned in a compact Rolls-Royce of a vehicle called ''Dirty Blonde,'' the play written by and starring Claudia Shear that opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater. Eight decades after a work of theater with the forthright title of ''Sex'' landed her in jail and 20-some years after her death, West is proving that she still has the power to shake things up. She has also, not incidentally, provided the inspiration for what is hands down the best new American play of the season.
Though West is the dominant presence in ''Dirty Blonde,'' which was first seen off Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop, this is no evening of mere impersonation. It's not ''Mae West Tonight!,'' with a celebrity facsimile spouting choice epigrams. Nor is it a high-toned tabloid of a play in which a real-life sacred monster reveals her all-too-human heart, a la Maria Callas in Terrence McNally's ''Master Class.''
No, Ms. Shear's ''Dirty Blonde'' is a multilayered study of the nature of stardom, as experienced by one of its avatars and two adoring fans. Shaped with remarkable fluidity and inventiveness, ''Dirty Blonde'' presents one of the canniest portraits on record of that floating dialogue between icons and idolizers that remains so much a part of American culture. What's more, it does so without the usual tut-tutting, instead making a persuasive case for star worship as a healthy religion.
Conceived by Ms. Shear and the show's director, James Lapine, who does his best work in years here, ''Dirty Blonde'' frames West's self-willed rise to glory through the perspective of two contemporary admirers who meet at the actress's grave in Queens. They are Jo (Ms. Shear), a sometime actress and full-time loudmouth, and Charlie (Kevin Chamberlin), a big, self-effacing fellow who works in the movie archives of the public library.
A less imaginative play would begin with this graveside encounter. ''Dirty Blonde'' starts by bringing Jo and Charlie to the edges of opposite sides of the stage, where they take turns delivering a sort of litany that describes the traits of the archetypal ''tough girl.'' She is someone who, as Charlie says, ''goes where she shouldn't, and when she gets there, she does exactly what she wants . . . and she likes it.''
That's the official version of Mae West, of course, and like most outsize public icons, it is made of natural grit and artificial varnish. ''Dirty Blonde'' will proceed to deconstruct that persona, as it shifts between two essential story lines: the professional evolution of Mae (who is embodied, brilliantly, in all phases of her adult life by Ms. Shear) and the developing relationship between Jo and Charlie.
The Jo and Charlie plot, one of the more unlikely love stories of the season, is pretty much chronological. The story of Mae leapfrogs in time, showing her at one instant as a pushy young hopeful in vaudeville and the next as the stylized gargoyle of her old age, with Mr. Chamberlin and the invaluable Bob Stillman (also the show's musical director) portraying human stepping stones and resting places along Mae's path to legendhood.
''Dirty Blonde'' is especially ingenious in tracing the elements that West appropriated in creating herself. The pelvic dancing she observed inHarlemnightclubs, the baroquely exaggerated femininity of female impersonators, the opulent hourglass glamor of the gaslight era -- the discovery of these elements is rendered with an immediate freshness.
So, however, is the gnarled caricature of a woman whom Charlie remembers meeting as a young man (the occasion for the evening's most memorable sequences) and who is seen performing an arthritic nightclub routine inLas Vegas, held up by two musclemen. Both as playwright and performer, Ms. Shear finds the continuity in all the seasons of Mae, the unrelenting drive that shapes and finally warps.
The play gives credence to the observation made by Arthur Laurents in his recently published memoir that ''anyone who becomes a movie star must be superhuman to remain human.'' Yet while the geriatric Mae is indeed monstrous, ''Dirty Blonde'' refrains from lip-smacking schadenfreude.
Rather, it views the transformation with a compassion commonly reserved for more obviously noble sacrifices. The play has its own perverse but credible theology: Mae becomes a monster that others might draw what they need from the courageous, defiant and exaggerated symbol she became. (Not, of course, that this was her intention.) The idea of Mae West helps Charlie and Jo, who both define themselves as losers, get through the day. It is also what brings and keeps them together.
Since it was seen downtown last winter, ''Dirty Blonde'' has changed only for the better. The script remains basically the same, with a little tightening here and there. But Mr. Lapine's adroit staging feels even more streamlined now and more sure-footed. In their Jo and Charlie incarnations, Ms. Shear and the wonderful Mr. Chamberlin, who knows that low-key doesn't have to mean invisible, have found a newly magnetic sense of mutual attraction that justifies the play's ending.
What's more surprising is how effortlessly the play seems to fill the Helen Hayes, a 1912 jewel box for the rough diamond that was Mae West. Douglas Stein's inspired warm pink trapezoid of a set; Susan Hilferty's time-traveling costumes and David Lander's cinematic lighting work beautifully together to create a world in which past and present bleed into each other.
It's a sensibility that reaches epiphanal heights in a scene in which both Mae and Jo turn into the creature who would forever after be identified as Mae West. The moment is one that could be achieved only in the theater, and while ''Dirty Blonde'' may celebrate a movie star, it also celebrates theater.
The show does indeed incorporate many of fabled West witticisms. Yet Ms. Shear's words are on their own terms equally resonant, blending a novelist's sense of detail with a dramatist's feel for music.
Listen, for example, to Charlie, describing the elderly Mae settling into a car: ''I could see her sink against the seat, staring straight ahead, like a doll on a pillow.'' Or here is Jo on the virtues of Mae as a role model: ''No desperation, no pain behind the eyes, 'the man who got away,' 'I love him so, he beats me too' or any of that . . . She's my teenage fantasy, my mother's revenge.''
That's still what comes across when you see Mae West in her movies: a pure sexual confidence untainted by guilt or doubt. American sex objects before and after her were nearly always conflicted and usually self-destructive.
Of course she shocked and delighted the audiences of her heyday. Who else was like that? Who, for that matter, is like that now? Ms. Shear finds the enduring substance in the smoke and mirrors of one actress's stardom, allowing Mae West to shock and delight once again.
The Helen Hayes Theater may at long last have a buxom B.O. tenant in "Dirty Blonde," Claudia Shear’s genial, funny, crowd-pleasing riff on the life of Mae West and the inspiration it provides for a pair of square pegs in contemporary New York. James Lapine’s bewitchingly pretty production looks just as chic on a Broadway stage as it did downtown at New York Theater Workshop, and the performances of its cast of three have now been polished to a fine comic sheen, with each bit of innuendo and double entendre — both West’s classics and Shear’s equally bawdy additions — popping brightly across the old-fashioned footlights.
As a piece of dramatic literature, "Dirty Blonde" is strictly small potatoes. It’s like a segment of A&E’s "Biography" combined with a semi-poignant episode of a wisecracking urban sitcom. These elements are, however, very deftly blended into a vaudevillian whole by director Lapine and author Shear. They conceived the show together, and Lapine’s light-handed, fleet-of-foot direction perfectly complements Shear’s snappy script. “Dirty Blonde” never digs deep, but it covers a lot of colorful territory in its brief running time.
Shear plays Jo, an aspiring actress who admires West for her determination to beat the odds in showbiz, which were (and still are) stacked against stacked women from Brooklyn with attitudes to match their ample proportions. Visiting West’s grave one day, Jo meets a fellow West fanatic, Charlie (Kevin Chamberlin), who regales a fascinated Jo with recollections of his brief friendship with the aged Mae, entombed in her ego and a plush Hollywood apartment.
They form a two-member fan club, and as their friendship blossoms, it begins to take some surprising turns. These are played out against a re-enactment of the sometimes equally strange turns of West’s showbiz career, with Shear playing Mae. Chamberlin and Bob Stillman, the third member of the hard-working cast, embody the various men in Mae’s life.
At one point Shear’s Jo describes Mae as "the movie star equivalent of Venice" — an utter original that’s impossible to approximate. She has a point, and Shear is better at evoking the late West, a ghoulish caricature of her former self, than the younger Mae, who still flickers vividly in our memory banks. Truth to tell, even as Jo, presumably a variation on herself, Shear isn’t the most dramatically convincing actress, but she has a connection to the material and the audience that gives her performance an undeniable, ingratiating appeal.
Chamberlin is sweetly pathetic as the scared-of-his-shadow Charlie, who harbors a strange secret that partially explains his timidity. He looks like a turtle who’s always on the verge of pulling his head under his shell. Stillman is entirely first-rate and wonderfully adept at the quick-change artistry that’s required of him. He transforms himself with a few physical and vocal adjustments from the gravel-voiced, cigar-chomping old-timer who pays court to the late Mae to the genteel drag queen who helped create the image of the young one.
Douglas Stein’s set, and David Lander’s lighting of it, are also major components of the show’s overall charm. Most of the play is performed inside a giant white cube, with the back wall consisting of various simple backdrops that quickly set the scene: a theater curtain, a bank of office building windows. Lander’s extraordinarily clever lighting does some of its own scene-setting, magically turning the stage into a disco or a pair of chairs into a taxicab. And Dan Moses Schreier’s excellent sound design is also noteworthy, even more so in the Helen Hayes, a deeper space than New York Theater Workshop.
"Dirty Blonde’s" charms are modest, and indeed its modesty is rather charming. But this means it will need a strong new set of reviews to compete for Broadway audiences at the height of the spring season, just before the summer swan dive at the B.O. It’s already been the subject of much coverage in the New York Times, which has run a remarkable number of features about the show’s performers and creators. The paper may next have to profile the player piano.