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A CurtainUp Review
Dirty Blonde
by Kathryn Osenlund

For a second she almost seemed like a real person
--- Charlie
Dirty Blonde, Claudia Shear's creation that has opened at the Wilma Theater starts with sketches that seem disconnected and a framing device that's not quite clear. Then pieces begin to link together, forming vignettes that are sometimes outrageous, sometimes quite touching, and all awfully good. The play has a lot of style and a lot of heart. Far from being a tired old Broadway re-run (as some shows here can be), Dirty Blonde has found new life and come into its own in Philadelphia.

While we follow Mae West's career, we observe the developing relationship of the protagonists, Jo (Ryan Dunn) and Charlie (Kevin Carolan), two modern young people, fans of Mae West, the movie icon of the past. The play moves "from Vaudeville to VCR" as the program states, but not in linear order. "In New York trouble made her -- in Hollywood it destroyed her." The real Mae West is explored throughout the play. Once a fresh upstart, she's still an ingenue in her 80's, at least in her own mind. We watch as she descends, becoming a freak show, even to the point of having others impersonate her, walking in costume outside her apartment building to keep the legend alive for the odd passing tour bus. "Dirty Blonde", a funny number in the midst of the process, is sung by a no longer young Mae, playing the Sahara in Vegas with her musclemen backups.

At times a narrator/tribute sort of thing happens. While informative, these pieces are less dramatically satisfying than the action scenes. The play is more about Mae's effect on the protagonists than it is about Mae.

Two dressing scenes are particularly notable. A character changes from one person into another as official clothing is donned, distantly reminiscent of the dressing scene in The Deputy (not to mix the sacred with the profane). But with clever handling of the action, this play takes the idea further and characters converge in a blending of past and present. A Mae creature is assembled for us, and it comes to life. As you would expect in a play about Mae West, some of the dialogue is bawdy, but it is surprising how much is sensitive, and how many sweet little scenes are tucked into the mix.

Ryan Dunn brings a looseness and energy to her role, and an openness to the moment that is remarkable. In a play titled Dirty Blonde, though, it's hard to understand how the early Mae character has red hair. Before the platinum blonde days, shouldn't the character have dirty blonde hair to help the double entendre title work?

Charlie, the young man interested in Jo, is an odd, simpatico character -- a quintessential nerd with a little quirk. Kevin Carolan, who understudied the Charlie role in NY, is in full bloom in this show as he plays Charlie and morphs into his various other characters including, but not limited to, Jim Timony, a drag queen, WC Fields, and a muscle man. Mr. Carolan disclosed that as he puts on the accessories of the character, he becomes the character. He's a living example of the old William James-based Lange acting theories in which objects and action spur the imagination and bring emotional truth to the performance.

Albert Macklin, the third actor, is more tightly wrapped than the other two, and it works well. He delivers precise, dead-on-target performances in his several roles which include Joe Frisco, an old guy with a hat and cigar who likes the racetrack and, in an adorable vignette, a great female impersonator and also a well-drawn stage director.

The New York set was essentially a pink box. That has changed. It's now a deceptively simple set with a backdrop of straight and curvalinear 2D shapes, shifting flat sculptures, which become endowed with particular meanings. There are a few chairs, a light table, a screen, a scrim. Add excellent lighting design and projections of Mae West movies, which help move the narrative along, and you have an impressive set design.

The director, Ethan McSweeny, who has done a fine job here, is the associate director of the George Street Playhouse. This production will be going there next.

Some things improve with age, and Dirty Blonde is one of them. The production has gone through permutations in its journey from New York through the road shows to Philadelphia, where it has reached maturity. Fresh directorial perspectives, new set design, and new actors have all combined to produce a fine theatrical experience. The show has been polished into a little jewel.

CurtainUp followed this production from its Off-Broadway debut, to its Broadway transfer and to its changing of the leading role. You can read all about that journey here

CurtainUp also did an extended interview with director Ethan McSweeney early on in his career:
To read part onego here.
To read part two go here.

Dirty Blonde
Playwright, Claudia Shear
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Cast: Kevin Carolan, Ryan Dunn, Albert Macklin
Scenic Design: Andrew Jackness
Lighting Design: John Stephen Hoey
Sound Design: Eileen Tague
Costume Design: Michael Sharpe Running time 1 hr and 50 mins with no intermission 9/10/02-10/13/02; opening 9/18/02

Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 9/18 performance
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