- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

You can keep Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, with their mall hair, pierced belly buttons and taut abs rippling above their low-slung pants. You can even keep Madonna and the late Marilyn Monroe, goddesses though they may be.
At the Kennedy Center is the genuine article. Claudia Shear's voluptuous portrayal of the original peroxide blond material girl, Mae West, in "Dirty Blonde" puts these gals to shame. In Miss Shear's words, Miss West was "all curves and nerves," which beats skin and bones any day.
Miss West emanated sex appeal from every pore. She flirted, vamped and wore corsets and heels when flappers sported chemises and flats. Miss West was naughty and insinuating, if not downright bawdy. She was arrested twice for "public indecency" for her plays "Sex" and "The Drag."
She was a pioneer, not only for pushing the envelope of sexuality, but for sisters making their own way. She was ambitious, smart, scandalous and shrewd with money and real estate investments. Men were playthings to her, not providers.
Miss Shear is equally magnetic in her play "Dirty Blonde," deftly directed by James Lapine, which is both a tribute to the legendary siren and a heart-tugging love story between two lonely fans who meet by chance at Miss West's grave. Jo (also played by Miss Shear) is an actress and a temp inspired by Miss West. "She's the movie star equivalent of Venice," she says.
Charlie (Tom Riis Farrell) is a shy film scholar at the Public Library, a fan of Miss West's since childhood. In a hilarious scene, Charlie goes to Hollywood at an earlier age (17) to meet the aging actress and gets invited along for Chinese food. Sitting at the table with Miss West and her old friend Joe (Bob Stillman), a cigar-chomping rail bird, Charlie is in silver screen heaven until Miss West launches a boisterous discussion about high colonics, of which she was a lifelong devotee.
Intertwined with Miss West's rise to fame is the odd, dear courtship between Jo (who has been in many relationships before and is very guarded) and Charlie (who has a secret hobby that is way beyond stamp collecting). What is so lovely about this romance is not just that it is between two ordinary middle-aged people, but that the actors show how their bodies fall in love while their minds hold them back. The audience knows they are attracted before they admit it, since their bodies and heads are always stretching toward each other, longing to connect.
It is incredibly poignant to see these two overcome their insecurities and succumb to their attraction. Miss West would have approved (and wondered what the heck took them so long).
Miss Shear's old-fashioned shape (think Titian, not supermodel) is perfectly suited for Miss West's over-the-top flamboyant way of dress, and Susan Hilferty's costumes honor her body instead of hide it.
Any woman considering liposuction should first glimpse Miss Shear dancing, wriggling and shaking her hips, reveling in a strong body that is not the anorexic ideal. She is magnificent as Miss West in her prime but also in the later scenes when the willful star refuses to give up her image and spends her waning years in isolation, almost like a doll in an air-conditioned case. When she is alone in her apartment, she seems deflated, a prop waiting to be used.
The scenes showing Miss West at her racy, wisecracking best are roaring fun (it was interesting to note how many people in the audience knew so many of her classic quips). The play is all about playfulness, teasing and flesh, a concept mirrored in the Douglas Stein's plump-pink jewel box of a set.
Mr. Farrell and Mr. Stillman are terrific in their multiple roles, playing everything from Miss West's musclemen to various husbands and lovers, homosexual sidekicks, and directors and producers. Mr. Farrell is particularly affecting as the endearingly self-contained Charlie.
"Dirty Blonde" gives sex and tough gals a good name.

****
WHAT: "Dirty Blonde"
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Jan. 6, with additional performances at 8:30 p.m. Dec. 31 and 2:30 p.m. Jan. 3
WHERE: Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
TICKETS: $20 to $68
PHONE: 202/467-4600 or 800/444-1324
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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