Mae West said, "Too much of a good thing is wonderful." Dirty Blonde, Claudia Shear's play about the famed celebrity sexpot, is definitely too much of something, and the results never prove to be uniformly wonderful.
The play not only chronicles how West made herself into the first sex symbol of the modern age, but it explores what West's legacy means for the men and women today. Dirty Blonde is part a biographical tribute, part a comedy of contemporary relationships, and Theatre in the Square's production tends to go cock-eyed when the script tries to look in two directions at once.
We see West from the perspective of two obsessed, unattached New Yorkers, an aspiring actress and temp worker named Jo (Shelly McCook) and a mousy film archivist named Charlie (Don Finney). They chance to meet on West's birthday at her graveside, and their common interest quickly feeds a friendship.
McCook also portrays West in recurring flashbacks, with Finney and Doyle Reynolds playing the men she uses and discards as she works her way up from the turn-of-the-century vaudeville circuit. Dirty Blonde traces the milestones of West's career, from being jailed for indecency for her Broadway play Sex to her Hollywood hits to her slow fade to obscurity.
McCook provides a dead-on impersonation of West's purring Brooklyn drawl, which invariably turns innocent-sounding lines into the most salacious of come-ons. West shaped herself into a notorious embodiment of guilt-free female sexuality, which was a step-by-step process: Reynolds' British theater director tells her she needn't "act" but simply be herself on stage or screen, while a pair of drag queens refine her flamboyant sense of style.
The play's most compelling scenes are Charlie's recollections of being a 17-year-old high school graduate who visits Hollywood and, miraculously, gets to hang out with his aging idol. Good as McCook is as the young West, she's even more impressive as the aged star: With her unnaturally rigid posture and fuzzy grasp of reality, she comes across as a semi-ambulatory, wax museum replica of West in her prime.
These scenes, charged with tension and faded fame, come across like a subplot to Sunset Boulevard (which the play informs us could have starred West had she been willing to play a has-been). Shear suggests that West was too reluctant to tamper with the formula that made her a star, and while McCook performs several sultry songs throughout the show, they're all essentially the same.
Finding that West apparently never loved another person for more than a night, the playwright looks to Jo and Charlie's quirky relationship to give the play emotional sustenance. We're led to believe that Charlie is gay, given his fascination with West and especially her gowns, though the truth proves much more complicated. Both actors nicely convey their roles' loneliness in different ways, with Finney making Charlie withdrawn and wounded, while McCook gives Jo a defensive flippancy.
But the time-shifting structure makes Dirty Blonde ungainly, as if it were the only way to shoehorn the playwright's modern ideas onto the stage simultaneously with West herself. Jo and Charlie's moments of conflict and bonding prove unsatisfying and never seize our attention like West's scenes. Placed alongside a personality as large and provocative as Mae West, who could?