Review: Dirty Blonde (Boho Theatre Ensemble)

  
  

Playing dress-up with Mae West

  
  

Anne Sheridan Smith, David Tibble and Nicholas Bailey

   
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Dirty Blonde
     
Written by Claudia Shear
Directed by Steve Genovese
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $25  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

There’s only one bona fide cross-dressing scene in Claudia Shear’s romantic comedy, but somehow the entire Bohemian Theatre Ensemble production resembles a drag show. Maybe that’s due to the inherent campiness of its central character, film legend Mae West. Maybe it’s because nearly every other character, past and present, actor or non-actor, speaks with a larger-than-life showbiz dialect. Or maybe it’s because, like a drag show, Boho’s play is saturated in self-awareness, nudging reminders of its own innocence and desires to be bigger, glossier, and sillier than ‘the real thing.’

Anne Sheridan Smith Those aren’t bad qualities for a West send-up. When a handsome young man (Nicholas Bailey) gives a warm little speech to open the show before plucking out an upbeat ditty at his upright piano, expectations for heightened reality and playfulness are set out. But West’s jovial and frivolous journey from vaudeville troublemaker to adored movie quip-machine fills only half of Dirty Blonde. That half is fun to watch. For reasons left unclear, Shear gives equal time to a modern-day romance between two star-crossed West fanatics, and their courtship is where director Stephen M. Genovese’s play begins to tear at the seams.

Celebrating her icon’s birthday, Jo (Anne Sheridan Smith, who does double duty as Mae) visits West’s crypt, where she bumps into Charlie, a skittish loner who works at the New York Public Library Film Archives. Realizing their mutual infatuation, Charlie and Jo become friends.

Ambiguously defined friends, at least, and that’s the crux of their story. When Charlie sneaks Jo into work to get stoned and poke fun at West’s reprehensible latter work, it’s not spelled out whether they’re platonically bonding, becoming each other’s fag & hag sidekicks, or dating. Charlie’s sexuality is intentionally left up in the air (though David Tibble plays him as a raging queen afraid of his own shadow), opening the opportunity for some intriguing, provocative ideas. Pot gives way to a hand on the leg; booze encourages an attempted kiss in a cab.

If the present-day scenes were more thought out and the characters more intricately drawn, they’d have enough legs for their own play. As it stands, their purpose is mostly just to mark time between historical anecdotes and amusing fictionalizations of the eponymous doydy blonde actress. Smith’s workable impression and slick delivery of classic scandalous one-liners makes the West plot watchable, but there’s only so much she can do to salvage Jo, especially opposite Tibble’s mealy depiction of Charlie.

     
Anne Sheridan Smith David Tibble and Anne Sheridan Smith

Which brings us to the cross-dressing scene: the play’s climax, and the most indicative moment of where the production’s faults are. Dramatically, one of three things typically occur when you put a man in women’s clothing.

1) shallow hilarity: video example

2) a solidification of identity, where supposedly ‘unnatural’ acts appears more natural and appropriate: example

3) an additional layering of an already enigmatic character: example

Revealing himself to Jo in a dress, Charlie educes none of these. The moment is stilted and awkward—it’s clear Genovese was going for liberating and cathartic. A more affecting scene depicts a young Charlie donning the gown to serve as a doppelganger for the ailing West at an appearance. Facing the crowds for her, Charlie comes into his own, and favor that’s savory for its dream realized and bitter for its underlying necessity. By this point, we’ve already spent so much time with future Charlie that his character is already defined, and for the most part, unpleasant.

If only the stage and script were built big enough for both queens.

  
  
Rating: ★★
     
  

Nicholas Bailey, Anne Sheridan Smith and David Tibble

 

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