ACT Theatre, 700 Union, 292-7676 $10-$44 7:30 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. select matinees ends Sun., June 30
MAE WEST WAS ballsy, openly sexual, and notoriously lewd long before women were allowed to display any of those qualities. But like so many famous women before and after her, her iconic status may have kept her from seeming real. Playwright Claudia Shear has given West back her humanity in Dirty Blonde, the Broadway hit that just opened at ACT, and in doing so finds a way to celebrate the larger-than-life possibilities in all of us.
The life of the icon is re-created by a three-person cast, two of whom are also busy creating the tentative romance between Jo (Julie Briskman), a loud-mouthed would-be actress who envies the star's liberating chutzpah, and Charlie (Michael Winters), a lonely film archive librarian, who bump into each other while visiting Mae's grave.
Shear's play is told in the precise language of a winning short story. It sees all the little things and shares them with us via Jo's and, especially, Charlie's narration. As a young man, a starstruck Charlie got to meet West during her final years, and Shear captures the experience in telling details: An "un-old" West invites the kid into an apartment that "smelled like your grandmother's house—sort of sad."
Briskman's no Mae West—an inevitable and unfair comparison, sure, but one you're going to want to make, anyway, so I'll play the bad guy and do it for you. The West walk and talk have been admirably studied, but, of course, they aren't natural. Briskman doesn't have West's crude grace; when she moves a chair during a West musical number, you shouldn't notice the chair.
What Briskman does get, however, is the ambitious bite beneath West's banter (it was more Mae, and less Marilyn, who set the groundwork for someone like Madonna to come along and take over the world). Better, she has a sense of the icon's dignity; Briskman's portrait of West's old age, when her act started to stiffen, is subtle and quite moving. And her portrait of Jo, whose brusque talk, like West's, hides an earnest heart, is the real deal.
Meanwhile, as Charlie, Michael Winters has a sweet guilelessness that never seems saccharine; he's the epitome of a gentle, good man. Though his work as supporting players in West's life doesn't match his adeptness as the leading man in Jo's (W.C. Fields is a bit undercooked), everything he does here feels pure. When he runs into Jo, we sense that the meeting is as momentous for him as the one with Mae. The evening becomes a tender romance between two "average" people and a dead woman—the intersection of three souls.
The third actor is left to play everybody else, a challenge met by Mark Anders in what is some of the best work of his long local career. His character turns come complete with funny voices and accents that don't play as simple gags; a bit as West's influential gay compadre is note-perfect without being cheap.
Shear, who first scored as a playwright recounting her beleaguered history of low-paying jobs in her one-woman Blown Sideways Through Life, tops herself here reflecting on how the brave public history of one famous person's life can be so delicately woven into the tiny, intimate histories through which the rest of us struggle.