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Theatre in the Park Preview: Dirty Blonde Pairs Two Eccentric New Yorkers Obsessed with Movie Star Mae West

February 8, 2003 - Raleigh, NC:


Theatre in the Park's all-star production of Dirty Blonde, an offbeat romantic comedy written by Claudia Shear and directed by Lynda Clark, is an improbable love story about two lonely and eccentric New York film buffs — Charlie (David Ring) and Jo (Alison Lawrence) — both obsessed with 1930s sex symbol Mae West (1890-1982), the Queen of the Double Entendre. The voluptuous swivel-hipped platinum blonde was a stage and movie star, playwright, and screenwriter famous for punctuating her performances and her dialogue with liberal amounts of sexual innuendo.

After they meet by chance while making a birthday pilgrimage to Mae West's mausoleum in Queens, Charlie and Mae become good friends. But will their growing friendship ever blossom into romance?

What makes Dirty Blonde special is the brilliant way that Obie-winning actress and playwright Claudia Shear parallels the unusual slow-motion courtship of Charlie and Mae with frisky flashbacks to pivotal moments in the life and career of Mae West, who struts and shimmies across the stage in all her carnal glory.

The original Broadway production of Dirty Blonde earned Best Play and four other 2000 Tony® Award nominations. The show opened to great critical acclaim.

In The New York Times, Vincent Canby saluted Dirty Blonde as "wise, moving, nervy, and exceptionally entertaining." Fintan O'Toole of the Daily News raved, "Claudia Shear has created a wonderful play... a small marvel of humor and humanity. Dirty Blonde is a true delight... a vividly original, genuinely funny, and surprisingly moving love story."

Donald Lyons of the New York Post said Dirty Blonde was "splendid... a fascinating take on Mae West... funny and sentimental." And Mike Kuchwara of the Associated Press wrote that "Dirty Blonde is more than the story of a star's life and career. It is also a sweet-tempered romance. Mae West would have loved it."

TIP guest director Lynda Clark says, "I first read Dirty Blonde a little over a year ago. I ordered it from StageNScreen book club. I thought it was a really phenomenal script, but I didn't think anybody in Raleigh would be interested.....

"When I heard Theatre in the Park was going to mount a production," Clark recalls, "I called [TIP administrative director] LeGrande Smith and threw my hat in the ring.... It's a very challenging script and not necessarily everyone's cup of tea. But I was so intrigued by the story lines, and the challenge that it presented to the actors, that I dived in with both feet."

In the first of the two parallel story lines, Clark says, "Charlie, who is a nerdy film archivist, meets Jo, an office temp and wannabe actress, at Mae West's graveside in New York. These two misfits happen to share an obsession with Mae West. A very unlikely friendship ensues between them.

"Charlie has a secret," Clark says, "and, in discovering that secret, and accepting that secret, Jo learns to accept herself and love herself, and know that you can overcome anything as long as you are willing to accept someone's flaws in the name of love and, in turn, they will accept you."

Clark notes, "Within that story, we jump back and forth in time; and Alison Lawrence, who plays Jo in the present, also portrays Mae West. We see the development of Mae's career peopled by all the men in her life — who are all played by David Ring and a third actor (Michael Brocki).

"Dirty Blonde is a play with music," says Clark, "and all the actors sing and dance in addition to playing multiple roles. They perform the vaudeville numbers associated with Mae West, and then a finale that was written specifically for the show."

Born in Brooklyn, Mae West became a stock company performer at age nine and a vaudeville regular at age 15. West made her Broadway debut at age 19, and eventually wrote and starred in her own sexually suggestive plays on Broadway. Indeed, she went to jail for eight days because SEX "corrupt[ed] the morals of youth."

After moving to Hollywood in 1932, she became a siren of the silver screen during the 1930s and 1940s. (Note: TIP will show two Mae West films: I'm No Angel [1933] at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 11, and My Little Chickadee [1940] at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 12.) Mae West's autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It (1959), takes its title from her famous shameless retort to a hatcheck girl who eyed West's expensive jewelry and remarked, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!"

The creative challenges in staging Dirty Blonde are huge, says director Lynda Clark. "First of all," she explains, "the narrative jumps back and forth in time. Within that framework, the pacing of the show is very important. It must be seamless and smooth. We can't take a lot of time getting from past to present. So, the pace of the show demanded that we use vestiges of costumes and lighting and adaptable set pieces to move the audience through that timeline without slowing down the course of the story."

Clark says set designer Stephen J. Larson, lighting designer Thomas Mauney, costume and hat designer Amanda McElray, wig designer John McIlwee, and musical director and pianist Glenn Mehrbach embraced the creative challenges and Dirty Blonde and did some of their best work on the show.

Lynda Clark says Steve Larson's versatile set has a centerpiece: Heather DiFilippo's floor mural of Mae West. The surrounding walls serve as backdrops to the action that takes place at Mae West's grave and in her long-time home Ravenswood, in various vaudeville theaters and on sundry movie sound stages, and at Charlie's office and in Charlie's apartment.

"We have some set pieces," Clark says, "that pivot to reveal one location on one side, and another location on the other side." She adds that Thomas Mauney's lighting is "very evocative lighting to help place us in the era that we need to be in for the moment" and Amanda McElray's eye-catching costumes and hats and John McIlwee's wigs are "fanciful and often humorous."

Lynda Clark says, "Casting the absolute right people was imperative. Both men play seven parts apiece, and the lead actress has the mammoth job of portraying a contemporary personality and Mae West in all of her metamorphoses into the icon that we know as Mae West. I think I cast well. I got three very fine actors who have met the challenge of creating very nuanced, very detailed personalities for all of these characters."

Dirty Blonde is a very, very funny romantic comedy; but there is a secret at its core that director Lynda Clark hopes will stay a secret for the run of the show. "Once you know Charlie's secret," she begs, "please do not tell your friends. I'd rather everyone suss it out or be surprised for themselves. We'd like to keep the ending a secret from people who have not already seen the show."

Theatre in the Park presents Dirty Blonde Saturday, Feb. 8, at 8 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 13-15 and 20-22, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 16 and 23, at 3 p.m. at Theatre in the Park, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($12 students, seniors and military personnel). (NOTE: The Feb. 13 performance will be audio described.) 919/831-6058. http://theatreinthepark.com/frames/dirty_blonde_frame.html.