Claudia Shear's paean to showbiz legend Mae West suffers from trying to be too many things at once. That's more than appropriate, considering West's own predilection for excess, but it's the character of West herself who gets short shrift in Dirty Blonde, and that's unfortunate. Ms. West was always the star of her own life — and of the lives of everyone who entered her orbit, regardless of whether they wanted to cede the spotlight — and having her bumped to the wings in her own play seems self-defeating.
Dramatic License Productions' Dirty Blonde opens with the impending meet-cute of Jo (Kim Furlow), an actress who temps more than she acts, and Charlie (John Reidy), a meek film archivist. She's brassy and loud, he's quiet and retiring and they both love Mae West. Their preordained friendship is postponed by flashbacks to Mae's heyday, when she was trying to break out of the lowest rungs of the vaudeville circuit. The story of the rise and rise of Mae West is in turn interrupted by flash-forwards to the late '70s, when a younger Charlie meets and befriends an aged Mae in her Los Angeles apartment.
Under the direction of Carolyn Hood, these plot lines snake around one another all evening, often shifting at the most inopportune times. Charlie and Jo lie dormant for most of the first act but displace Mae in the second, and her disappearance saps much of the production's sparkle. How can it not? Charlie and Jo's "will they or won't they?" relationship is the stuff of countless sitcoms and films, but Mae West was once in a lifetime.
Furlow does double duty as Mae in these chronological shifts, playing the young and ambitious woman with an energy that feels forced. Much time is devoted to revealing how Mae created her on-screen persona through trial and error, crafting her diction and swiping her more outrageous mannerisms from drag-queen friends; as a work-in-progress Mae, Furlow comes across as someone attempting a Mae West impersonation but missing a key element. Her portrayal of the older Mae is much more natural, the erstwhile sexpot cooled down but by no means extinguished. It's not until the second act that Mae is the Mae of legend — she sings the title number from Diamond Lil, her Hollywood ascent now assured — and Furlow nails every nuance. And then, just as we finally get her, Mae vanishes, to be replaced by Jo and Charlie and their sputtering romance. It's not a fair tradeoff, but neither was waiting so long to receive the full-on Mae.
Reidy does nice work as Charlie, a tightly wrapped cipher of a character. His fondness for West extends to dressing up as her (a revelation that's a long time coming). Reidy's scenes with the older Mae are some of the best of the show. His enthusiasm for everything Mae West is severely tested during a shared dinner at a Chinese restaurant, as Mae matter-of-factly explains the health benefits of frequent enemas just before the soup course arrives. B. Weller demonstrates his versatility as the man in Mae's life, whoever that man may be at the moment, whether it's crusty old gambler Joe Frisco or her cuckolded first husband and stage partner, Frank Wallace.
And that's the odd thing about Dirty Blonde. The story of Mae West's passage through the lives of all these men, from Frank to Charlie and beyond, is interesting enough to warrant its own full-fledged production. Why it's wedged into the story of Jo and Charlie is a mystery, but even in this truncated and jumbled form, there's enough to capture the imagination for as long as it lasts.