Bush-Era Banality

Few questions asked, little revealed in these productions

After a stop at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, the state that invented schlock, this production is reportedly aiming for a Broadway run. It may please the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, but I cringe when I think what will happen when Manhattanites get out their knives. Better to swim with the fishes.


Schlock out, schlock in. While Romeo & Bernadette strives to make it to New York, New York has retaliated by dumping schlock of its own in our neighborhood. One such delivery is on view at GableStage, which is presenting Dirty Blonde, a wholly forgettable exercise in competent but pointless stagecraft.

Bernadette and Romeo and songs signifying nothing
Bernadette and Romeo and songs signifying nothing

Details

Book and lyrics by Mark Saltzman, with traditional Neopolitan music arranged by Louis Forestieri, directed by Mark Waldrop. With John Paul Almon, Natalie Hill, Andy Karl, and Adam Monley through Feb. 2 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy; 305-442-4000.

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The show, a long-running New York hit, was created by actress/writer Claudia Shear largely as a vehicle for herself to portray the legendary star Mae West. The play features Mae's career, sorta, while also following the offbeat romance of two of her modern-day fans. Mae's history is presented in straight-ahead factoid scenes -- her life in vaudeville, her involvement with several men, her problems with the censors, her shaping of the Sex Queen stage image. Amid this history parade is the tale of Charlie, a reclusive film archivist and raving Mae fan who travels to her grave on her birthday. There he encounters another Mae fan, Jo, a chunky, insecure wannabe actress. The awkward pair certainly connect in their fascination with Mae, and click, kinda, romantically.

Jo is fascinated that Charlie actually met the aged Mae in her Hollywood home. Charlie even has one of Mae's gowns, which he urges Jo to don for a costume ball. But then Jo discovers that Charlie likes to wear the gown himself. Will Jo go to the ball with Charlie, both dressed as Mae West? So goes the Big Dramatic Question in Dirty Blonde and that, my friends, is about as fine an example of schlock as you are ever gonna get.

There is some real dramatic potential to the history of Mae West. She certainly created a unique persona, and her frank sexuality anticipated the modern era by many decades. But this show reveals nothing about West; it just shows her cracking smart one-liners and rolling her eyes at her own innuendoes. What motivated this driven, lonely woman and who she really was are issues left completely unexplored.

As to the Charlie/Jo plot, I suppose a story about two gown-wearing, celebrity-worshipping fetishists in love has an appeal to some but, as Miles Davis might say and did: So what? The play tries to drum up some moral lessons about bravely going where your heart leads you -- you can almost hear another Davis, Sammy, bleating out "I've Gotta Be Me" (or maybe "I've Gotta Be Mae") -- but surely there's a better story to be told than this.

If this stuff has to be produced, at least it's being done competently. Joseph Adler's production is quick-paced, sleek, and good-looking. Rich Simone's minimalist set, a series of quick-sliding curtains and panels, is a big asset here. The trio of actors has a field day playing several roles. Margot Moreland slips back and forth between playing Jo and Mae with ease. She's especially good at playing the old Mae, hobbling around in a bad wig and a cloud of memories. Ian Hersey is solid as Charlie and a few other roles. But the real scene-stealer is David Kwiat, who plays Mae's ex-boxer confidant, a supercilious English director, and a flurry of other characters. Kwiat seems to pop up in every other area production -- from an embittered Yiddish actor in Smithereens to a string of wackos in Comic Potential to a haunted Irish drinker in The Weir. Every one of those characters memorable. Sadly, not so with Dirty Blonde.

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