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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'Dirty Blonde'
Kevin Chamberlin and Claudia Shear in a fantasy biography of Mae West. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Contents: April 24, 2000:
(1)"The New York Theatre Workshop's "Dirty Blonde
(2)"Panache" at The Players Theatre
(3)"Jane Eyre" by Shared Experience at The Brooklyn Academy of Music
(4)"Sexual Perversity in Chicago" and "Duck Variations" by The Atlantic Theater Company
(5)"Trudy Blue" by MCC Theater
(6)"Imperfect Love" at New York Performance Works

"Dirty Blonde"
by Claudia Shear, directed by James Lapine
Produced by New York Theatre Workshop
Helen Hayes Theatre, 244 West 44 Street
Opened December 15, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar January 23, 2000
Claudia Shear's "Dirty Blonde" is about the confluence of dreary reality and fantasy. It's the fantasy of people who recreate themselves on larger-than-life designs to play to the public's desire for vicarious glamour. And it's the fantasy of fans who identify so closely with the icons that they want to get into their skins.

Mae West, once she found out how good bad press could be, promoted herself as a "dirty blonde;" Shear plays on the obvious double meaning. She starred in a bawdy play, "Sex," underwent a tabloid trial, and emerged a famous saucy, tough girl with a saleable persona. Making clear what she was selling, Shear drops a strap and reveals a breast.

Mae's fans, Jo and Charlie, are ordinary, unglamorous people -- both distinctly overweight -- who wrap themselves in the star's life and, literally, her garb. Jo is an actress working as a temp; Charlie is an archivist at the New York Public Library's performing arts division.

Not surprising that there's a certain gay/camp mood to the piece, since pretending that men are women is certainly the height of fantasy. That may be why such figures as Mae West and also Ethel Merman, women with tough personas that eschewed "femininity," are favorites of drag entertainers. They can be men pretending to be women who appear to be men pretending to be women (or maybe women acting like men.)

The play is built around a series of vignettes about Mae West and the fans who doted on her into her dotage. Mae (who calls herself the movie star equivalent of Venice) is very nasal, very Brooklyn, very feisty. She is not young or thin. (She didn't become a star till 40.) Perhaps that is one of her charms for the neurotic fans who make her the center of their lives. Certainly Charlie, who in a flashback meets her when he is 17 and she is aging, refuses to acknowledge that she is a pathetic character. Actually, she is never more than cartoonish, a drag queen's vision of the star. But the play is less about her than about her fans.

An inter-cut parallel plot traces the romantic interest between Charlie and Jo, who meet at Mae's gravesite. Jo is initially put off by Charlie's occasionally wearing Mae's glittery gown, big hat and boa, but he is persistent in his suit. And after all, he cross-dresses only in Mae's clothes. When two Mae's -- Jo and Charlie in matching gowns -- embrace and kiss, it makes a joke out of the confusion of gender.

Shear as Jo, in her yellow raincoat, is consummate New York. As Mae, she expresses the lady's gutsy challenge to the world in every twitch of her face or look in her eye. Kevin Chamberlin is wonderfully comic as the round-shouldered, hunkering Charlie, and also as a campy boxer and a caricatured W.C. Fields.

Reality intrudes in the form of the excellent Bob Stillman whose characters include the tough Joe Frisco, the thin vaudeville guy in a straw hat who does an early act with Mae and marries her. He's also Mae's director, who flourishes a Southern accent and a cape.

Director James Lapine creates an almost surreal feeling, halfway between reality and camp. He is helped by Douglas Stein's superb, spare and imaginative set, including a trapezoid room with a glass divider that seems to pull in the audience. David Lander's inventive lighting includes shadows of blinds that create the vision of large windows. And just the right sound comes from a stride piano.

by Don Gordon, directed by David A. Cox
Produced by David A. Cox, Edmund Gaynes, Michael Taylor
The Players Theater, 115 Macdougal St. at W. 3rd St.
Opened February 10, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar February 25, 2000
Don Gordon's unpredictable, charming, comic play revolves around an unlikely relationship between two New Yorkers of about 35 or 40, who meet by chance and end up having a sequence of humorous interactions, all the while giving each other sensitive advice on fixing their lives. It's delightfully acted by a bright and talented cast, and smartly directed by David Cox.

This is the kind of plot that could easily slide into sit-com triteness or sentimentality, yet it never veers off the path of sharp personal commentary. It is both thoughtful and entertaining.

Kathleen Trafalgar (Lisa Pelikan) is a lady with a mission, which is bound up with style. It's the style that dresses her in a black dress suit, two strands of pearls, white mink jacket, pumps, and puts her hair in a chignon and her body behind the wheel of a Mercedes. To certify this style to the world, she wants a license plate that says "panache." Panache, noun: style, flair, savoir faire.

Alas, Harry Baldwin (Eric Pierpoint) has already it. The license plate. He has his own reasons for wanting it, which turn out to be more worthy than Kathleen's. But she barges into his sloppy Brooklyn apartment believing that money will buy "panache," like it buys everything else.

Two people could not be more dissimilar. Harry sleeps in his jeans wrapped in a brown wool blanket on an old couch. The furnishings are a round bar table and old cane back chairs, unpainted, some shelves with plates, glasses, beer bottles -- and art books. He throws used beer cans into the kitchen. He's scruffy, his eyes are bleary, he needs a shave. He's a night and breakfast chef at Lucky's Café.

Kathleen is rich. Harry asks, "Did you ever rough it." She chokes back tears: "Charles and I one night had to stay in a Holiday Inn!"

Slowly the shells they have built around them begin to crack and they get into each other's lives, her marriage and his past. He turns out to be more sensitive than we figured. She becomes less elegant. "Hit me!" she declares. When he seems nonplused, she explains, "It's a barroom term. It means a little more."

A flashback to his past involves Irwin (James Benjamin Cooper), a shy young college student, and Laura (Jillian McWhirter), a beautiful young waitress. Gordon's comic dialogue has echoes of Woody Allen. The timid Irwin blurts out: "Could we go shopping for a joint cemetery plot this weekend?"

Some Brooklyn reality is provided by Jumbo Dombroski (Wesley Thompson), a very funny, hefty fellow who wears a stocking pulled over his hair, a leather vest, and sings "Dayo" with a toothpick in his mouth. He's Harry's bookie and gambling friend, and they do a wonderfully comic deadpan "Chain Gang" song.

Pelikan draws Kathleen as almost a cartoon, but then pulls out the real substance underneath. She makes you feel her pain. Pierpoint brings warmth to his portrayal of Harry, giving a hint of the hurt he's repressing. And Wesley Thompson is a hoot as Jumbo.

It's a play with -- well -- panache.

"Jane Eyre"
by Charlotte Bronte, adapted and directed by Polly Teale
Produced by Shared Experience and Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn
718 636-4100
Opened February 8, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar February 11, 2000
"Jane Eyre" was always a feminist novel, its heroine a bright woman whose life chances were limited by poverty and gender. For a poor but educated female orphan in the mid-19th century, making a good marriage was the only way out. Alas Jane Eyre, governess to a rich man's ward, sees her chance to marry her employer Rochester smashed when she learns he has an insane wife. In Charlotte Bronte's story, mad Bertha, hidden in the attic, is a barely human creature who we'd gladly wish away to clear the path for Jane Eyre.

But Bronte drew women's liberation more narrowly than it is seen today. Polly Teale has given it another dimension, that of sexual liberation, and her stunning presentation, with a superbly talented cast, grips, fascinates and delights.

Jane (Penny Layden) and Bertha (Harriette Ashcroft) are alter egos. Jane, in drab gray, is the repressed half of the woman; Bertha, in red, is the sultry, sensual side. They represent chilly Victorian England vs. the tropical West Indies, repression vs. passion, submission vs. rebellion.

Teale shows that visually as well as metaphorically. The rough decaying wood platform attic, landing and stairs bifurcate the space. Often, when Jane is expressing an action on stage, Bertha is mimicking and exaggerating it above. We see her continually on that platform room, disheveled, with matted dreadlocks, often tied to a chair, struggling against her bonds. Ashcroft makes you know that within her madness, she knows exactly what is happening to her, and we sympathize with the wretched soul.

The company enacts the story in balletic and gothic fashion, often comically exaggerated in tone and style. Rochester's ward, Adele (a witty Octavia Walters) prances around doing ballet kicks and standing in dance position. Michael Matus plays a slapstick growling dog. The production spoofs romance novels, even as it respects their themes.

Yet, the spoofing has serious purpose. In early scenes, Brocklehurst (Michael Matus), the tyrannical, neurotic school master, in cartoonish black top hat and long coat, admonishes, "We are here to mortify in these girls the lust of the flesh" and orders that a student's red curls be cut off. As a young girl, Jane declares, "I shall wish hard to be useful and pleasant." But not passionate, for women (like Bertha) are punished for expressing passion.

Teale emphasizes the need to rebel, with a character's advice: "If good people are always obedient, then wicked people will have it all their own way." And with Jane's feminist demand for knowledge of the larger world: "I know that women are supposed to be calm...Women feel just as men feel, they suffer from stagnations. They shouldn't limit themselves to making puddings and playing the piano. They must have action." Layden plays Jane as someone constantly -- even physically -- pulled between the proper and the desirable.

We see the danger such a woman faces of being dominated by a man. "I am disposed to be gregarious tonight," Rochester (Sean Murray) tells Jane. "Talk to me," he orders. He calls her Janet, as if by giving her a new name he is taking ownership. Murray creates an arrogant, insensitive man who doesn't understand his own egotism.

He knows about love, which he describes as "being tossed into the rapids, dashed to pieces or borne up on a wave." But his idea of loving Jane would be to change her. He declaims, "You will be my angel." She objects, "I will be myself." And she'll keep her job and wage, rather revolutionary for the mid-1800's. She insists, "I am a free human being with an independent will." Still, we see an ironic reminder of the ambiguity of Jane's position as she mimics Bertha's gesture of subserviently kissing Rochester's hand.

Her feminist victory is that she agrees to go to Rochester only after he is helpless and she is in charge. In fact, she hardly expresses dismay at his tragedy; she seems quite satisfied at the outcome.

"Sexual Perversity in Chicago" and "Duck Variations"
by David Mamet, directed by Hilary Hinckle
Produced by Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20 Street
Opened January 12, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar January 18, 2000
David Mamet's riff on sexist men and defensive females must have been quite a shock in 1976 when it was first performed at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York. Bernard (Clark Gregg) is the creep you love to hate, as he crudely comes on to women and brags of imaginary sexual conquests to his wide-eyed, paper-pushing office-mate, Danny (Josh Hamilton). This battle of the sexes is distinctly uneven; the men haven't established their humanity, much less their masculinity.

The women, Deborah (Kate Blumberg), an art student, and Joan (Kristin Reddick), a kindergarten teacher, are both inherently more interesting and decent than the two men, and they both reject them sooner or later. This early work certainly contradicts Mamet's reputation as a macho who doesn't understand women.

A series of vignettes pairs the four characters in variously combinations. Bernie seems to be in his 30's, Dan is 28, the women in their 20's. When Bernie hits on Joan at a bar, he is the cruder so her woman's reaction can be more astonishing. After she turns him down with, "I do not find you sexually attractive," he gets nasty, then obscenely accuses her of being a tease. And she apologizes!

When Danny comes on to Deborah, who's sketching at a cafe table, she rispostes with the announcement that she's a lesbian. It seems to be a backhanded protest against getting involved with any man. Her roommate Joan evinces clear hostility at the thought of her leaving. Joan's clear anger at men makes one wonder at the contradictory forces that earlier made her apologize to Bernie. These women seem to have a good idea that the men are no good. Deborah will find out for herself what women were finding out a lot after the free love 60's -- that a man's enthusiasm for sex didn't mean he wanted to communicate in any other way.

In fact, the men seem to have as good a time on their own fantasizing and commenting on women's body parts as they do with live females. Bernie's fantasy life resembles an x-rated movie by a war film producer.

Mamet's vision is funny and authentic. Director Hilary Hinckle brings it to life with just the right combination of realism and exaggeration; it hardly seems that the relationships were drawn twenty-five years ago. The four actors do excellent jobs, especially Clark Gregg as the fellow you'd like to stuff and mount (on a wall). Kate Blumberg and Kristin Reddick portray very well the confused, contradictory attitudes women have toward sexist men, and Josh Hamilton epitomizes the ordinary guy enthralled by his macho role model. Alexander Doge's set creates a colorful multi-level collage of apartment, bar, office, café to house their chaotic lives.

Do men mellow with age? The two old codgers in Mamet's gem of a play, "The Duck Variations," are quite charming as they sit on an old park bench overlooking Lake Michigan and talk about human nature in the form of ducks. The work is a gentle satire or perhaps appreciation of Beckett. One fellow intones, "The Park is nice." The other, "You forget." Then, "You remember." And, "What's to know?" Hinckle's understated direction is perfect.

Emil (John Tormey) and George (Peter Maloney) are utterly engaging as they philosophize with wry humor. One says, "They got the money for a boat, they can afford it." And, "No man is an island, to himself or to anyone else."

A flock of ducks presents the opportunity for anthropomorphizing. About the lead duck: "He learns the route, maybe he's got a little more on the ball. The time comes to step down, he dies, he leaves, and another duck comes up."

One man notes that duck season is a week in fall and spring. The other responds with indignation, "The only time the duck is around!" And he conjures up Mel Brooks when he explains that "the ancient Greeks, old men of no use to their society, would sit on a chair and watch birds."

The two tell absurd shaggy duck stories, they argue, almost bitterly, then quickly trade apologies. In their own lives, they need each other as much as the ducks need the flock.

"Trudy Blue"
by Marsha Norman, directed by Michael Sexton
Produced by MCC Theater
120 West 28 Street
Opened December 12, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar December 6, 1999
Marsha Norman's enormously clever, entertaining and thoughtful surreal comedy exists on multiple levels through which you are carried by the swirls of her imagination. It is about what happens when someone confuses fantasy and reality or perhaps when one seeks succor in fantasy to obliterate the harsh truths or fears of real life. Michael Sexton directs with such clarity that actors intersect in time, space and reality with never an intrusive bump.

Ginger (Polly Draper), a writer dissatisfied with her life, confides her discontents to her novel's protagonist, Trudy Blue, who is her alter-ego or maybe the expression of her fantasies. Ginger has a rich interior life. We are never quite sure whether what is happening on stage is really happening or is going on in her head. She has real conversations with imaginary people and imaginary conversations with real people. Time shifts between present and flashbacks.

She's been to the doctor (Aasif Mandvi) and has gotten a clean bill of health about cancer, or has she? Her husband (John Dossett) is utterly unfeeling and rejecting in her illness, or is he? He denigrates her work: "You talk on the phone and have lunch with your friends." He wants to know if one of the characters in her book is him.

Her 13 year-old daughter (Julia McIlvaine) is at a difficult, accusatory stage. Ginger never got along with her frenetic, overbearing mother (Judith Roberts), now deceased, whose continued presence is irksome. Mother makes comments such as asking whether it isn't better to hear about her failings "from someone who loves you." Her editor Sue (Pamela Isaacs), comments, editor-like, as events progress, while relishing the prospect of a movie to be made from the novel.

Ginger decides to research a book on pleasure and does interviews with a musician with whom she does or doesn't have an affair.

Trudy Blue hangs around, remarks on everything, and seems to be Ginger's only support, while also looking out for her own interests. Trudy prefers a slinky gown, which she sports, in campy fashion, in a vignette with a movie tough guy in fedora and raincoat. She complains to Ginger that she dresses "like a nun from a really shy order."

One thing is clear: Ginger's doctor is a clown. We can tell by his bulbous red nose.

Polly Draper does a superb job as the appealing, hollow-cheeked Ginger with a crack in her voice. Sarah Knowlton is a perfect foil, even throwing in a funny Hepburn imitation. The rest of the cast is also high-level, with everyone appearing to take everything with the proper degree of tongue-in-cheek.

The inventive set by Mark Wendland is made up of circular screens with photos of the bedroom and the terrace of Ginger's Manhattan apartment. Like the play itself, it seamlessly merges fantasy with reality.

"Imperfect Love"
written and directed by Brandon Cole
Produced by Patrick Blake, David Elliott, Andrew McTierrnan, Beth Schacter
The Ryan Stage at New York Performance Works, 128 Chambers Street at West Broadway
Opened March 4, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar March 4, 2000
"Imperfect Love" has a lot going for it. Playwright-director Brandon Cole has some fun entangling life and art and playing with flowery, period language. Leslie Lyles as a grand Italian actress has a wonderful dramatic range, and John Gould Rubin gives the bored, blase leading man an appealing, almost deadpan persona.

On the other hand, there's not much subtlety in the plot, and the playwright at the center of it seems so nervously petulant and hostile, you think he needs an analyst rather than a better ending to his first act.

The story is based on an imagined day in the lives of Italian actress Eleanora Duse and playwright Gabriele D'Annunzio. Here they are called Eleanora Della Rose (Leslie Lyles) and Gabrielle Torrisi (Christopher McCann). It is Rome, 1899. Gabriele's play has just opened to bad reviews, the theater owner wants to close it down, and Eleanor, her co-star Domenica (Rubin) and two clowns, Marco (Ed Hodson) and Beppo (Peter Dinklage) are frantically trying to help the strident, frenetic, ungracious playwright make changes. Eleanora has been asked to play the lead in a new play, Ibsen's "A Doll's House," but is loyally committed to helping Gabriele. He is so small and petty, you wonder why. Ah, love.

Since the characters are lovers who fight and reconcile, the actors figure that they can, unbeknownst to the author, just write down the hot words between Gabriele and Eleanora to fix up the play. The words get hotter after suspicions are aroused about Gabriele's intentions for his next production. Is he planning to give it to Sarah Bernhardt in Paris? The action shifts between "real" and "acting" speeches, in a way to keep you on your toes. It is often funny and clever, though somewhat heavy-handed. It would have been better had Gabriele been given some Prozac.

The play was the basis of the movie "Illuminata," which appeared last year. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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