“What do I know about a heart? To me, a man’s an asset!” Mae West’s very intonation is proverbial—though just after the start of Sex, her 1926 Broadway blockbuster now revived at the Aurora, she intones, not too piously: “Don’t give me that church business again; you’ll get me goin’ back to the old homestead.”
That’s what a good deal of the ’20s were about, and another reason they were called roaring. After the First World War, they couldn’t keep ‘em down on the farm, and the duplicities of middle class respectability versus the facts of life, which the novelists and playwrights of Europe and America had been exposing for a couple of generations or so, became the stuff of popular entertainment.
Vaudeville spawned burlesque—and in a way, burlesque spawned Mae West. Sometimes called “the greatest female impersonator who actually was female,” Mae’s mannerisms were as exaggerated as the—assets—that got a life jacket named after her during the next world war. And Sex, the play and the risque’ subject matter, was what got her over the top and in the nation’s eye (or face) for over 50 years.
Risqué—the very word summons up a lost half-world of knowing words, looks, gestures ... moves ... that played off the polite meaning of things, the naughty exhibitionistic side of hip, or louche. Lenny Bruce’s bumper shots off compulsive morality now often draw blank looks; how will the hoarier poses of wisecracking Mae make out in The Postmodern?
Maybe better, as—like current icons such as Madonna—she’s all show, all provocation, in fact a lot of talk, especially when removed from her milieu, one informed with constant tension over behavior, over the social mask.
So how does the venerable Aurora, under the steady hand of artistic director Tom Ross, turn such a relic of bygone showmanship for contemporary consumption? Wisely, by concentrating on a good time had by all—a reduction of a tour-de-force of yore to a nostalgic entertainment, brought off by skillful entertainers.
The one tour-de-force remaining is Delia MacDougall’s playing of the lead character, Miss Marguerite (Margy) LaMont, as something more than a bravura impression of Mae. She plays Mae West in every sense, makes her image live, a real icon.
The rest of the cast was chosen well, having to play two or three roles each, especially two other real troupers, Steve Irish as Mae’s limey squeeze off a lime squeezer, Lt. Gregg, and Maureen McVerry as slummer and thrillseeker “Clara Smith,” showing considerable physical comic skill on her way down to the floor and back up again.
Kristin Stokes is very bright and funny, touching as a good girl gone bad, and hoping to go back. Mae’s comment: “Agnes’ idea of a good time is to hear the bells chiming and have a good cry ... If I were as dissatisfied as you are, I’d join the Salvation Army.” She also plays a French maid and a chanteuse in the Cafe Trinidad, getting into a funny six-legged dance number with others in the ad-lib chorus.
It’s that chorus, or ensemble, that really counts, from the framing device of New York Times critic sniffing and Variety scribbler spieling about Mae’s hit, to the panoply of popular—and forgotten—romantic tunes, dance numbers (from “Shake That Thing” to “Everybody’s Shimmying Now”) to Mae’s own versions of red hot mama crooners.
It’s all a lot of fun, well-executed (if in a way cinematicized, the direction Mae went in from Broadway) with one really funny twist of plot which spices up a suburban parlor scene. But it doesn’t quite catch—though it strives very well—the tone of double-entendre, of artificiality versus sordid reality, which burlesque and the original pulp fiction used to bravely signify, proud to be “genre,” generic.
On a more middle-to-highbrow level, reading Anita Loos also proves a little bit of a wash-out as far as seeing what all the fuss was about, while her friend Dorothy Parker comes across a little better. But to catch the dark undertow that closed Sex down when it was a success on Broadway and made Mae stand up in the black maria all the way to headquarters in a way that still aches, that’s still all-too-current, it’s necessary to see certain plays of O’Neill—or read Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.
8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday;
2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 9 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addision St.
$28-$50. 843-4822. www.auroratheatre.org.