Has there ever been a creature more mythic than “The Blonde”?
From Monroe to Evita to Harlow to that most ambitious of blondes who borrowed shamelessly from the closets of her fore-sisters, The Blonde is a diva without peer.
She is breathless bombshell and femme fatale. Untouchable ice queen and come hither pin-up. She is Clyde’s Bonnie. She is Archie’s Betty. She is Peggy Lee and Doris Day and Mamie Van Doren.
She can be a vision of virginal purity, or she can be a little bit dirty.
Signature Theatre’s season opener Dirty Blonde — a play nominated for five Tony Awards in 2000 — finds its inspiration in the original bawdy bad girl of blondes, Mae West. Long before Madonna was being banished to the late-night hours for her video high jinks, West was causing theater owners fits all on her own. She was a girl with curves who knew that sex could put people in the seats and a star on her dressing-room door.
But like Madonna and Harlow and so many of the rest, Mae West was not always Mae West. Claudia Shear’s “play with music” explores that transformation story in a play about the people we find when we look beneath the surface. Dirty Blonde has the simplicity and tone of a one-person show brought into being by the kind of well-connected ensemble we’d love to see more often.
Jo (Emily Skinner) is a devoted fan of Mae West. She knows the movies, remembers the names of West’s lovers the way others vaguely recall old college roommates and even makes a pilgrimage to the family tomb where the starlet is buried. It’s at the tomb that she meets Charlie (Hugh Nees), a film archivist whose devotion to West seems to rival her own.
What grows from that first meeting is an odd and utterly endearing love story that mixes imagined past and brilliantly crafted present. Shear’s storytelling moves us seamlessly back and forth in time, crafting cleverly believable bridges between West (also Skinner), Jo and Charlie.
Skinner is outstanding in her dual role. She avoids becoming either slavish impersonator or vamping drag queen. Her youthful West is brash and bold, the woman who became as famous for her smart mouth as for her burlesque-show shimmy. It’s a thoughtful performance that feels completely organic and, while it may be a blurring of the line between art and life, a kind of a love story in and of itself.
There’s also a sympathetic quality to what Skinner brings to the stage, particularly in the scenes where she takes on the role of West in her later life. An aging golden girl who can’t bear the thought of growing old any more than the she can stand the harsh effects of unfiltered sunlight. Skinner gives the character — because one could argue that even the real West was herself a character — a fragile dignity and affords her respect.
Nees has his own heavy lifting to do as Charlie and succeeds in magnetic fashion. He opens up to Jo and the audience with a gentle and apologetic tenderness. It creates a chemistry that feels genuine. Sweet without the saccharine. Well crafted enough to hold firmly together even as everything the audience thinks they know and understand about Charlie is tossed into a whirlwind.
In creating the character of Charlie, playwright Shear isn’t just challenging our perceptions of her characters, she’s challenging our perceptions of love and devotion and identity.
The trio is rounded out by J. Fred Shiffman, who gives life to a host of West’s contemporaries. Shiffman is usually a pleasure to watch onstage and there seems to be a particular energy at work with this show. He projects an enjoyment and enthusiasm that radiates from the stage to the back row of the theater.
With Dirty Blonde, Signature Theatre has found a unique and wonderfully compelling play with which to open their 20th anniversary season. Plan to go up and see it some time.
Oh, come on. You knew that was coming.