By Chuck Conconi
“I believe it is better to be looked over than it is to be overlooked.”
— One of the many enduring quotes from self-made celebrity star Mae West, the subject of a Studio Theatre production of Dirty Blonde. That phrase probably defined West, who achieved a star-stature difficult to understand by contemporary standards.
The buxom, zaftig Mae West was no beauty and not really much of an actor who self-created herself in a career that ranged from the age of vaudeville to the movies of the 30s – “I’m No Angel” and “She Done Him Wrong” — and she was still projecting her sexy, outrageous illusions almost up until her death at 87 in 1980. Unfortunately, by then she became a caricature of herself, propped up in tight, glittery gowns and wrapped in feathered boas.
Produced in Signature’s intimate Arc Theatre space, West, is portrayed brilliantly by Emily Skinner. You begin to understand, in Skinner’s deft portrayal, how this course-talking Brooklyn gal talked her way into celebrity stardom simply by bluntly talking dirty in ways no woman then would have ever dared to talk. She constantly tested the censors and her audience loved her for it.
No other woman said such things as: “Sex is emotion in motion.” “I’ve been in more laps than a napkin.” “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.” “A hard man is good to find.”
Skinner is so good and is supported by the dynamic performances of co-stars J. Fred Shiffman and Hugh Nees, that it is easy to overlook some of the flaws of the play that is a play within a play. One part relates the West story, while the other has Skinner doubling as a young, sometimes actress who develops what seems to be an impossible relationship with Nees, portraying a film archivist. Both meet a West’s crypt in a Brooklyn cemetery and both are obsessed with the dead star. Nees is so smitten that there is a question of his masculinity because he dresses up like West, spangled gowns and boas. And, he once actually met the real Mae West, one of the highlights of his mundane life.
There is something of the criticism of the Julie & Julia movie about Dirty Blonde that would have worked better being one thing or the other. That is, however, just a quibble. Skinner, Shiffman, and Nees are so good that any theatre fan would pay to watch them knit granny a sweater. And like Mae West, Dirty Blonde is not a production to overlook.