Unlikely as it seems, playwrights have occasionally made the subject of Hollywood into provocative theater. There's Sam Shepard's Angel City, in which a northern California medicine man is hired by producers to create a movie that drives "people right off the deep end ... penetrating every layer of their dark subconscious and leaving them totally unrecognizable to themselves." Or there's David Rabe's Hurlyburly, in which drug-besotted Sunset Boulevard types use their terribly challenged intellects to make sense of a town where everything's for sale and nothing's solid.
Or there's my personal favorite, David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, wherein an almost totally debased producer dares, against all the prevailing winds, to try to do one good thing.
In all of these plays, the serious subtext concerns the human cost of the Dream Industry, the perversion of souls in a city devoted to money and the Next Big Gimmick. In each of them, Hollywood is the enemy, and healthy human interests battle pathetically to survive.
Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde, currently playing at American Stage, takes a very different tack, and is therefore both refreshing and, by the end, disappointing. This celebration of Mae West treats the actress as iconic, archetypal — someone to be adored and emulated, not analyzed or deconstructed. In Dirty Blonde, the distance between spectator and star is progressively eliminated until her fans, male and female, are dressing like her, talking like her, even kissing each other Mae-West-to-Mae-West.
And there's no criticism inherent in Shear's depiction of this extreme behavior, no suggestion that in sacrificing their identities to an image, the fans have lost anything important. Placed beside West's, Shear implies, most other lives are insignificant. So one makes the logical choice of nonentities everywhere: One pretends to be a movie star.
Shear's a talented, original writer — as she demonstrated decisively in Blown Sideways Through Life, produced last year by Stageworks — so her tribute to West is always entertaining at the very least. And her play's structure is ingenious: Scenes illustrating the developing relationship of two West fanatics, Charlie and Jo, are interwoven with scenes depicting the major moments in West's career. So on one hand we have Charlie and Jo meeting at West's gravesite, sharing a walk back to the subway, meeting in the film archives at the public library (where Charlie works), watching Sextette at Charlie's apartment; and on the other, we see West getting her start in vaudeville, writing and starring in a Broadway play, making her breakthrough into the movies, falling out of fashion and appearing in Vegas.
With the same actress playing both Jo and West, it becomes possible to move with sometimes stunning efficiency from one story line to the next. And moments when the story lines more or less merge — as when we flash back to 17-year-old Charlie paying a call on retired West — are all the more evidence of writer Shear's technical mastery.
Speaking of mastery, the show's three performers are all top-notch. Best of all is Jodi Kellogg, who as Jo seems both vulnerable and well armored, and as West is just as aggressively self-assured as the famous actress. Blake Walton plays Charlie as rather mild-mannered and a little nerdy — which seems right, even though it makes an eventual hookup with Jo improbable. Walton also plays seven other roles, from a judge in an obscenity trial to W.C. Fields, and he handles every one of them with effortless grace.
Finally, Charlie Schwartz does a fine job in eight different parts, including West's husband Frank Wallace and, in her later days, companion Joe Frisco. Director Van Huff keeps the action moving with impressive swiftness, and Richard Cannon's light-studded proscenium, from which a purple curtain hangs, is nicely evocative of a life in show business. Behind it all, music director Robert Winslow plays piano delightfully — both as punctuation to some scenes and accompaniment to certain songs.
But in the end, there's too much missing. To establish all the subjects the play leaves uninvestigated, you only need mention what it touches upon. There's the Hollywood star machinery, the cult of celebrity, American sexual mores in the 20th century, movie censorship, woman as sexual aggressor and male cross-dressing. Then there's the fate of the aged, and the loss of personality to a distant Ego Ideal. Loss of personality most of all — because Jo and Charlie don't want merely to idolize Mae West, they want to be her, wear her clothes, speak her lines with her inflections. And these are adults, not adolescents. There's something troubling here, if only Shear would notice it.
But she doesn't. She only celebrates it.
And so this Dirty Blonde, entertaining as it is, finally feels superficial. Wasting Away in Magritte-ville The Alley Cat Players have made a decision to focus on theatrical surrealism, and that's a choice that Bay area audiences should applaud. But surrealistic texts are often difficult and (deliberately) confusing, so it takes a special effort to make them meaningful to the public.
This is a challenge that Alley Cat hasn't satisfyingly met in its latest production, a double bill consisting of Tom Stoppard's After Magritte and a montage of surrealist texts called After After Magritte. (I saw both in a dress rehearsal.) In the Stoppard piece — an early play heavy on visual gags and rapid-fire verbal wit — the actors (Colleen McDonnell, Steve Mountan, Clare Ward, Scott Isert and Jimmy Chang) are much too loud and not nearly quick enough.
And in the latter offering (acted by Barbara Eaker, along with Chang, Mountan and Ward), hard-to-follow literary arguments are presented with too much hortatory emphasis, as if volume and big gestures could make the complicated simple. (A typical line from Act Two: "Because it is surrealist, assimilating the greatest physical, chemical, physiological, psychological, psychoanalytical conquests and all science in development, and because it has freed all the conventional frontiers, globing in itself the highest ethical values of man.")
In fact, the evening's only real successes are Teresa Elena Gallar's witty costumes and Ned Averill-Snell's sets, which make the Silver Meteor Gallery's few square feet into, first, a delightfully cockeyed living room, and then a sparsely appointed surrealistic dreamscape.
Alley Cat is still young, so we can expect some false steps as it discovers its stride. The next riddle it has to answer: How do you make the intellectual but nonrational texts of surrealism theatrical?