When asked if she believed in love at first sight, Mae West famously replied “I don’t know, but it sure saves time.”
That’s one of the storied Mae-isms that populate actress-playwright Claudia Shear and James Lapine’s Dirty Blonde, which is wrapping up the season at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. Part tribute, part send-up, Dirty Blonde is a campy one-act play with musical numbers, tirelessly performed by a cast of only three. Melinda Gilb does double duty: as Mae West from her vaudeville days through her octogenarian self-parody, and as Jo, a present-day would-be actress who’s a fan. Steve Gunderson inhabits a variety of roles, the chief one being Charlie, a bespectacled longtime Mae devotee who feels his fandom to a surprising extreme. David McBean tackles a handful of peripheral characters, of both genders.
Comprised of short scenes that flit between past and present, Dirty Blonde tells the parallel stories of Mae West’s eyebrow-raising emergence and inevitable decline and Jo and Charlie’s awkward friendship. With virtually no props and only a projection screen as backdrop, the play relies on the actors’ physicality, the over-the-top gowns and all those Mae West one-liners. Mae and Jo aren’t the only ones wearing the gowns, by the way. Turns out Charlie is persuaded (it’s not clear why) by Mae to dress up like her one day, and this becomes a habit he can’t break.
Dirty Blonde, which Shear performed to acclaim on Broadway in 2000, could just as easily function as a howling drag revue, and if fully “musicalized” someday, Dirty Blonde could be more fun than Legally Blonde. At Cygnet, it’s wink-wink, cross-dressing fun, although rather wearying. Mae West herself was so overboard her theatrical characterization needs no help. Perhaps that’s why Jo and Charlie, whether they’re sharing Almond Joys or literally wrestling, have more complexity than the Hollywood icon they both adore.
To the very end, no holds are barred in this production. Which brings us to another Mae-ism: “I like restraint – if it doesn’t go too far.” Nobody will accuse Dirty Blonde of being restrained, and if it goes too far, well, Mae would probably be OK with that.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat