When asked if she believed in love at first sight, Mae West famously replied “I don’t know, but it sure saves time.”
That’s one of the storied Mae-isms that populate actress-playwright Claudia Shear and James Lapine’s Dirty Blonde, which is wrapping up Cygnet Theatre’s current season in Old Town. Part tribute, part send-up, Dirty Blonde is a campy one-act play with musical numbers, tirelessly performed by a cast of only three. Melinda Gilb does double duty as West, from her vaudeville days through her octogenarian self-parody, and as Jo, a present-day would-be actress who’s a fan. Steve Gunderson inhabits a variety of roles, the chief one being Charlie, a bespectacled longtime Mae devotee who feels his fandom to a surprising extreme. David McBean tackles a handful of peripheral characters, of both genders.
Composed of short scenes that flit between past and present, Dirty Blonde tells the parallel stories of West’s eyebrow-raising emergence and inevitable decline and Jo and Charlie’s awkward friendship. With virtually no props and only a projection screen as backdrop, the play relies on the actors’ physicality, the over-the-top gowns and all those West one-liners. Mae and Jo aren’t the only ones wearing the gowns, by the way. Turns out Charlie is persuaded (it’s not clear why) by West to dress up like her one day, and it becomes a habit he can’t break.
Dirty Blonde, which Shear performed to acclaim on Broadway in 2000, could just as easily function as a howling drag revue, and if fully “musicalized” someday, Dirty Blonde could be more fun than Legally Blonde. At Cygnet, it’s wink-wink, cross-dressing fun, although rather wearying. West herself was so overboard that her theatrical characterization needs no help. Perhaps that’s why Jo and Charlie, whether they’re sharing Almond Joys or literally wrestling, have more complexity than the Hollywood icon they both adore.
To the very end, no holds are barred in this production—which brings us to another Mae-ism: “I like restraint—if it doesn’t go too far.” Nobody will accuse Dirty Blonde of being restrained, and if it goes too far, well, West would probably be OK with that.
Dirty Blonde runs through June 17 at Old Town Theatre.
Brilliant Mistake: This adult-themed, world-premiere comedy, about a novelist who hires a woman to find his birth mother, is set in North County and is presented as a live graphic novel of sorts. Opens June 2 (previews run May 30 and June 1) at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad.
Richard III: King Edward IV’s malicious, manipulative, murderous little brother lusts for England’s throne, takes it and presides over a reign of terror in Shakespeare’s history play. Opens June 3 in The Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre in Balboa Park.
’Til Death Do Us Part: Late Nite Catechism 3: You, the theater-goer, are a member of a catechism class and part of the show in this interactive comedy. Opens June 2 at Welk Resorts Theatre in Escondido.
The Underground New Play Festival: Eight plays— written, directed and performed by UCSD undergrads. Runs June 1 through 9 in UCSD’s Arthur Wagner Theatre.
William Shakespeare’s Lear: The aging king divides his kingdom and hands the pieces over to his three daughters, according to his judgment of their recitations of love for him. Of course, he messes it all up and everyone dies. Opens June 1 at Patio Playhouse in Escondido.
Trying: It’s the late 1960s and a young secretary is trying to help former Attorney General Francis Biddle get his affairs in order as he tries to cope with old age. Through June 3 at Broadway Theatre in Vista.
The Scottsboro Boys: The Scottsboro Boys were nine black kids charged with raping two white girls in Alabama in 1931, and their case was representative of racism in the criminal-justice system. The Scottsboro Boys is a musical based on their story. Through June 10 at the Old Globe in Balboa Park.
A5678: A Musical Revue: Musical theater at its most meta, this is a revival of a play that opened in the ‘70s. The action centers on a cast of a play during the two hours before curtain. Runs through June 10 at Welk Resorts Theatre in Escondido.
Hands on a Hardbody: A musical based on a documentary? Yep. This Playhouse-commissioned play is about 10 contestants trying to win a truck in a battle of endurance, with music by Amanda Green and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio. Through June 17 at La Jolla Playhouse.
Nobody Loves You: In this musical comedy, a grad student of philosophy goes on a reality TV show to send a message to his ex-girlfriend and ends up lighting a new flame. Runs through June 17 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.
Dirty Blonde: An aspiring actress on an annual trek to Mae West’s gravesite meets a film librarian who shares a devotion to the iconic sex symbol. Produced by Cygnet Theatre, it runs through June 17 at The Old Town Theatre.
Two by Pinter: The Lover and The Dumb Waiter: A couple of ‘50s- and ’60s-era one-acts by acclaimed British playwright Harold Pinter. Through June 17 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
California Suite: Neil Simon’s comedy is made up of four playlets, each about visitors to the Beverly Hills hotel—from New York, Philly, Chicago and London. Through June 23 at Scripps Ranch Theatre.
Respect: A Musical Journey of Women: The evolution of women’s role in society is explored through past top-40 hits in this upbeat musical. Through June 24 at the Lyceum Stage at Horton Plaza.
Coming Attractions: In this comedy, the proprietor of a hotel that had once catered to celebrities who wanted to get away from prying eyes has died, and some colorful folks have come to pay their respects. Runs through July 1 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.
miXtape: Generation X was torn between disillusionment and hope in this cavalcade of music from the 1980s. Produced by Lamb’s Players Theatre, it runs through Sept. 2 at the Horton Grand Theatre, Downtown.
Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill.