by Claudia Shear
conceived by Claudia Shear and James Lapin
directed by Spiro Veloudos
Lyric Stage Theatre
Boston MA (617) 437-7172   through October 12 2002 

Reviewed by G. L. Horton

Dirty Blonde is a real theatre piece.  Though it was shaped with the dramaturgical assistance of its original director, James Lapine, as a showcase for the underutilized talents of the voluptuous Claudia Shear, author/actress of "Blown Sideways Through Life", and it is part docudrama, part vaudeville, part sentimental comedy, part therapeutic exempla, it comes across the footlights as if it were a long gossipy story told by a friend-- and it is totally charming. Boston's Lyric Stage performs it with a subtlety and flair that matches the cunning of its construction. Three local performers play all the roles in the piece using a well chosen variety of acting styles to color each character’s contribution to the collage, and their seamless transitions are supported by superlative work from the design team of Karen Perlow (lights), Marc Plevinsky (sound) Gail Astrid Buckley (costumes), and Janie Howland (set) under the deft direction of Spiro Veloudos.  "Dirty Blonde" is such a perfect fit for the Lyric that you would think it had been created for just this space, these actors, this audience, rather by and for Claudia Shear.

Maryann Zschau, last season's IRNE winner and always a local favorite, is a shy blossom as Jo, a plain young woman who works temp jobs and calls herself an actress.   Jo is a fan of famously unshy Mae West, who seems to embody the sort of lusty fearless attitude the tentative and sensitive Jo wishes she had.  On a birthday pilgrimage to Mae’s mausoleum Jo meets a tentative and sensitive fellow fan, Charlie-- played by Larry Coen-- who actually knew Mae in her sunset years and can contribute personal anecdotes to Jo’s collection of facts and memories.  Maryann Zschau is Mae in scenes that bring the facts and memories to life, and at first it seems that she is too good a Jo to be convincing as the larger than life Mae West.  However, this is because in the early scenes we only see Mae before and after her glory years: the times when Mae wasn't really Mae West either, but only a lusty busty minor talent with a huge ambition, or a carefully preserved two dimensional sketch of the roundly willful one of a kind woman she invented. When Mae achieves Mae West, Comic Love Goddess, Zschau comes into full bloom as a hothouse rose in glittering petal pink-- and the scene brings down the house.  This is partly because Claudia Shear has created for the actress who doubles Jo and Mae a very well written scene-- but it is also owing to the fact that Maryann Zschau is the Lyric’s own, and Boston’s own, a character actress cum leading lady who has built up a reservoir of affectionate admiration in an audience that is just waiting for the great occasion to pour it out in applause.

Larry Coen, who plays-- in addition to Charlie-- Harry, Jim Timony, Lt. Greg, Judge, Dutchess, Kid Moreno, W. C. Fields, and a Muscle Man, is a multi-talented performer as well as co-author (with David Crane) of the Hollywood satire “Epic Proportions” that played past Saturday night on Broadway and will be staged at the Lyric later this season. (Something rather spectacular to look forward to.) Coen’s local fans will be pleased to see the fine work he does in a spectrum of roles in “Dirty Blonde”. His W.C. Fields deserves an encore, if only for holding his cantankerous own in an insult duel with Mae in top form, but it’s Coen’s Charlie that is the memorable characterization.  Starting as a mere sketch, easy to stereotype and dismiss, Charlie rounds out into a person anyone would be glad to call friend.  Jo shrieks in terror when she first bumps into him, but once past the creepy aspects of their cemetery encounter she is ready to meet Charlie more than half way -- or less, if more isn’t something that interests him.   Her new friend has a low profile job, but it is one that suits him to a T and delights her stage and screen struck self-- Charlie is a film librarian.  A scene in the library illustrates how each must temper their temperaments to reach compatibility: Jo must tone down her free wheeling, Charlie loosen up his curatorial fussbudgetry.

In interlaced scenes, Mae too is adjusting her temperament and style to groom herself for compatibility-- with the show going public, and the stardom she believes is meant to be hers.  Early on Mae became convinced that there is something that is rock bottom naturally good about what is called a Bad Girl-- “I had my first orgasm at twelve,”  she purrs, “When did you start-- or have you?” Mae believes in her body and its pleasures, and in keeping it in good shape from the inside out: no alcohol, drugs, or unhealthy food for her. But she wasn't averse to packaging the outside according to the proven principles of advertising, using trail and error and good advice and wigs and corsets and calculated split second timing to reach her goal. Will McGarrahan is the "Dirty Blond" musical director, and also serves Mae as a source of trial and error and advice in a multitude of well defined roles, most of them on the seedy side: Armando, Joe Frisco, Frank Wallace-- Mae’s footnote of a husband-- Edward Eisner, Ed Hearn, and a parody Muscle Man.  The most important is probably Edward Eisner, the savvy ex-drag queen who teaches Mae West how to put what she has on offer Out There, Best Bits Forward, where everyone with a generous heart and an open mind could enjoy at least the sight of it.

Most everyone will enjoy it at the Lyric, and most will go away from "Dirty Blonde" feeling a bit more generous and open minded than when they came in. I, at least, am cheered up by the thought of this celebration of the working class version of benevolent narcissism as a source of comfort and joy and an antidote to depression personal or economic-- a welcome diversion from the gathering clouds of war. I'm happy to believe that Mae herself brought that kind of cheer to the victims of the Great Depression, and the Boys overseas in WWII.  I mention this because it is such a stark contrast to the aristocratic narcissism that seems to be the object of celebration in Matthew Lombardo's ill crafted biopiece on Hepburn currently playing at the A.R.T. in Cambridge. "Tea at Five" depressed the hell out of me, and I hadn't even paid $60 for a ticket.