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More Than A Bio-Play

Mae West Obsession Is Just the Start in "Dirty Blonde."

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Emily Skinner takes on the role of Mae West in "Dirty Blonde."

Signature Theatre has opened its 2009-2010 season. It is its 20th in Arlington and its first as the Tony-Award Winning Outstanding Regional Theatre in America. The first show is a three-person, multi-character play that is much more than a simple bio-play, even if it does cover the life and career of an iconic figure of the stage and screen.

"Dirty Blonde" tells the story of a pair of loners in the present who are fans of Mae West, a star of the past who appeared in such Broadway scandals in the 1920s as "Sex" and "The Drag" and hit movies of the 1930s including "She Done Him Wrong" and "I’m No Angel" with Cary Grant and "My Little Chickadee" with W.C. Fields. By combining the story of the emerging affection of this couple for each other with the history of West, playwright Claudia Shear manages to avoid simply presenting a biographical play while covering the interesting life of Miss West.

The play was a hit on Broadway in 2000 with Miss Shear playing the dual role of Mae West and the female fan. At Signature, it is Broadway-veteran Emily Skinner who takes on the roles. She is both touching as the young fan and an intriguing mixture of comic and tragic as the star herself both in her prime and her dotage.

Hugh Nees is fabulous as the other young fan, a loner who is so obsessed with Mae West’s memory that he made a pilgrimage to the California hotel where she lived in her last years, earning a chance to meet the star and, eventually, striking up something of a relationship with her. She bequeaths to him some of her gowns which leads to some unorthodox pleasures.

Nees carries the story of this rather sad young man through a number of stages as he suffers the loneliness of an outsider, experiences the thrill of a star-obsessed fan being acknowledged by the object of his fixation, and trepidation of the tentative efforts to strike up a relationship with a contemporary.

Rounding out the cast is the delightful J. Fred Shiffman who plays some of the men in Mae West’s life. He can be a thoughtful friend one moment, a fellow vaudeville hoofer the next and later West’s abandoned husband.

This is "a play with music" and it features some of the vaudeville routines and songs of West’s background. A single piano accompanies some of the scenes. In the small, 120-seat black box theater they call "The ARK" in Signature’s two-theater complex in Shirlington, the sound of that piano sometimes overcomes the sound of the actors’ voices but the problem doesn’t last long.

Since the play involves events in many locales, set designer Daniel Conway faced a real challenge in the small space which he solves in part through the use of projections on the back wall, visible through two frames fashioned as theater prosceniums.

Helen Huang handled costume designs and went all out when it came to Mae West’s costumes — luscious fabrics, spangles galore, glittering jewels and flashy boas, headdresses and hats with plumes, feathers and more spangles.

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Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.