One of the delusional yet empowering parts of growing up is that we each think we discovered sex all by ourselves. We're messing around with frogs or Barbies, and then all of a sudden, wham!, we're up to our eyeballs in lust. After that, we're on the prowl for anything sexual, and we eventually hear about Mae West, the zaftig movie star whose satin-voiced, eye-rolling double entendres and inverted clichés ("A hard man is good to find") have become as much a part of our language as prepositional phrases. And we kinda fall in love with her witty, outrageous, libidinous honesty.
That love affair continues brilliantly in the Cleveland Play House production of Dirty Blonde by Claudia Shear. This story of Mae's life is a theatrically orgasmic romp from start to finish. It's a rare delight when a funny and insightful script is animated by crisply inventive staging and virtually flawless performances. Which is why you should hie yourself to 8500 Euclid without further ado.
Now, if you think that almost two hours of watching a Mae West impression would be cruel and inhuman torture, you'd be right. The genius of Shear's script is the skillful interweaving of Mae's rise to scandalous fame with the sweet story of Charlie and Jo, two present-day societal rejects with borderline OCD fixations on Madame Mae. The two fans meet at a Queens mausoleum, where Mae occupies a drawer, and are drawn together by their encyclopedic knowledge of Mae's career and seemingly bottomless reservoir of bon mots. Charlie works at a film archive and, as a teen, made a pilgrimage to Hollywood, where he met the elderly, scary blonde icon. For her part, Jo is a "tough girl" who sees Mae as a role model: a gal who spoke her mind while grabbing public attention and male crotches with equal abandon. Jo mistakenly reads the nerdy Charlie as a harmless gay boy, which leads to some tender moments and an endearingly offbeat relationship.
Meanwhile, Mae is bumping -- and grinding -- around the burlesque circuit, writing her own sex-themed shows until, at her mother's insistence, she changes her look to the corseted, spangled Sherman tank image we all now envision. This visual refurbishment launches the 40-year-old Mae into Broadway success in Diamond Lil and then on to a career in films that have little going for them, other than Mae's languidly drawled one-liners and ad-libs. Once the films disappear, Mae continues to perform onstage -- even appearing at age 85, literally propped up by a bevy of muscle-boys in the wretched Las Vegas revue Sextette. While the playwright only deals with Mae as a symbol, never delving below the surface to explore deeper motivations, the dual plot lines take the script far beyond mere celebrity impersonation.
In the demanding double role of Mae and Jo, Elizabeth Meadows Rouse is note-perfect. She resists the temptation to turn her Mae West into a medley of caricature affectations and instead imbues the actress with a lopsided sensual dignity. But she still nails the classic quips and sizzles in all the right places. And as Jo, Rouse believably blends vulnerability and resolve to create a wistfully fascinating character. Charlie is played by nebbishy Nick Sullivan (a guy who makes Wallace Shawn look like a stud) and is such a dweeb, he'd probably get an atomic wedgie from strangers at a bus stop. But Sullivan deftly crafts Charlie into a lovable loser who ultimately wins on all fronts. Sullivan also interprets other characters, including a fast turn as W.C. Fields. As fine as those actors are, Tom Frey steals almost every scene he is in, playing a variety of men in Mae's life. Notable among them is Eddie, the oh-so-gay performer and costumer who assists Mae during her ascent. In this and other roles, Frey is downright dazzling.
All this is staged with verve by director Peter Hackett. While it's difficult to know what presentation ideas were included with the script and which were added in this production, Hackett gets full credit for the fantastic final result. The pace is so brisk and deliriously involving that it feels at moments like watching the movie Chicago. In one scene, Mae and her first husband rehearse their stage act, perform it, are married and then estranged, all at the same time -- and it all makes sense, thanks to subtle lighting changes and spot-on timing. Further enhancing the experience are the quick-change scene designs by Vicki Smith and superb period and stage costumes by David Kay Mickelsen.
There are many great lines in Dirty Blonde, including this throwaway, when Mae addresses her boobs as she tries to wriggle into a tight outfit: "Get in there, girls, and behave yourselves." You'd best get in there, too, if you know what I mean.