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Act One is an Inspiring Chronicle of a Playwright’s Determination

How do you make it big in New York when you’re starting from zero? Moss Hart’s 1959 autobiography, Act One, shows one path, a steep climb from poverty in the Bronx to his first Broadway opening in just a few exhilarating years. With specificity and purpose, director James Lapine has adapted the late playwright’s memoir into a surprisingly moving drama; he shows us how, for Hart (played primarily by the magnetic Santino Fontana), success comes through a crucible of self-discovery and sometimes with a loss of innocence.

A superb duo at this production’s big heart ignite the striver’s tale. Fontana lets us feel the wonder and terror of a young man who suddenly sees Manhattan’s glories opening up to him. Tony Shalhoub, as Hart’s older self and as Hart’s writing partner, George S. Kaufman, transforms a seasoned writer’s comic eccentricities into tender vulnerabilities.

For those of us who work in the theater, there’s a special pleasure to a tale centered around making a show (Once in a Lifetime) work at all costs while navigating a minefield of collaborations. Ironically (for a drama hinging on how to fix a third act), the adaptation’s late sections slow and repeat a bit, and it’s a pity Hart’s authorial voice doesn’t come through more distinctively from the original book. But, as Moss learns, making theater is all about coping with imperfections — and Act One is an inspiring chronicle of determination.

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Movin’ On Up: Two New Musicals Champion the Underdog

Upward strivers have always held a special place in the heart of Broadway bards,
for the same reason they’re at the heart of melodramas and Hollywood pictures: Americans adore them, every time. Last week, two new musicals,
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and Little Miss Sunshine, opened with variations on this tried-and-tested theme.
The former is, by far, the more charming
and witty of the pair — a frequently funny faux-Edwardian romp that pays homage
to its predecessors with a wink and a nod.

Fueled by Robert L. Freedman’s sharp and witty book and Steven Lutvak’s serviceable score, this commercial vehicle
motors its twisty plot with two terrific
performances. Bryce Pinkham treads with levity and perfect poise through his machinations as Monty Navarro, a penniless young Londoner who discovers, from his late mother’s old friend, that he’s actually a disenfranchised member of an aristocratic family. A mere eight living relatives stand between him and a titled estate as earl of Highhurst, so Monty
applies his guile to their demise, one
by one. It’s a familiar tale, but executed — pun intended — with wit and delicious farcical timing. (Darko Tresnjak directs with a meticulous hand.)

The star turn here, however, belongs
to Jefferson Mays, who plays all of Monty’s victims with comic, dexterous aplomb. (He’s especially hilarious as the dim and tipsy Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith, who teeters to his doom in a craftily
devised staging, and as the loud, boorish Lord Adalbert, who lives the longest and downright demands to be silenced.)
To meet, and murder, each of the eight rightful heirs, Monty must first infiltrate their world and make friends — a neat structure that allows just the right amount of time with each of Mays’s silk-stocking caricatures. It also effectively pits Monty, the impecunious but ruthless climber, against an entire succession of complacent fat cats. This is a killer anyone can root for: He’s a charmer, he’s righting his mother’s wrong, and his well-heeled victims are
consistently odious.

Little Miss Sunshine, based on a sweet 2006 film, retains only a few of its winning qualities, celebrating the American family’s stubborn-but-lovable dysfunctions and its tough-but-teachable struggles to find the good life. Second Stage has recruited a blue-chip boulevard team (book and direction by James Lapine, music and lyrics by William Finn) to put musical legs on this road-trip movie, with mixed results.

The youngest of the Hoovers, Olive (Hannah Nordberg), has a shot at winning a child beauty pageant in California, so the entire family piles into a mini-bus and hits the road, suffering many degradations so their eight-year-old girl can aspire to glamour for a few hours. Lapine devises economical ways to show the family’s odyssey across the West, with a giant highway map and GPS screens and actors wheeling their chairs around.
Onstage, however, a triteness gets
exposed that the film mostly manages
to skirt — particularly in the bland songs, which try unconvincingly to endow
what are essentially thin comedy-sketch characters with stock-issue heartfelt
desires and dreams.

A Gentleman’s Guide stays fun because
it celebrates and measures our material
aspirations without trafficking in sentiment; it either sends up or dismisses any other psychology. Little Miss Sunshine tries to have it both ways, giving every character endearing eccentricities while underlining their supposed breakthroughs. Sometimes killing off your family is a lot more entertaining than saving it.

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Into the Woods: The Disenchanted Forest

Trust the tale, not the teller, they say. But Stephen Sondheim’s innately ironic spirit wasn’t created to trust either. Even before he collaborated with James Lapine on 1987’s Into the Woods (Delacorte Theater), Sondheim filled his work with debunking allusions to fairy-tale diction—most of them deleted before the Broadway opening. Company originally ended with a long, ferociously arduous song called “Happily Ever After”; an unhappy wife in Do I Hear a Waltz sings “I was taught/When the prince and the dragon fought/That the dragon was always caught/Now I don’t even wince/When it eats the prince.”

“Though fairy tales are foolish,” warble the young lovers in a song cut from A Little Night Music, “That’s a fairy tale to trust.” But trust, whether compatible with Sondheim’s self-questioning sensibility or not, is precisely what fairy tales aren’t meant to engender, at least not in grown-ups. Pre-moral creations that bubbled up from the collective unconscious, the tales transform dangerous real phenomena—unkind stepmothers, wolves, tyrannical rulers—into narrative elements that, treated magically and playfully, make genuine threats paradoxically easier for children’s minds to absorb. The notion of scrutinizing their playfulness from a naturalistic, psychological point of view, as Sondheim and Lapine did in Into the Woods, has a weirdly literal-minded quality—all the more when encased in an inherently playful form like the musical.

Consequently, Into the Woods has always been an oddity in the Sondheim oeuvre, a lucky Cinderella of a musical that’s royally adored by many (especially if they experienced it in childhood) and heartily disliked by some. Piling Sondheimian treatments of no less than six fairy tales (don’t forget the princes’ second-act flings with Snow White and Sleeping Beauty) into a problematic new one invented by Lapine, the show has always seemed a little top-heavy, a little confused, and—despite all its spells and transformations—a little less than magical.

Sondheim’s devastating brilliance, at both lyrical wordplay and musical architecture, only intermittently invites the warmth that goes with the image of a parent telling a child a bedtime story, even a grisly cautionary tale. Built on astoundingly skillful expansions of small, often reiterated themes, the score sometimes seems to put up a brick wall of notes between us and the characters. Lapine’s jocose, convoluted mix-and-match of the tales, too, often seems to deride, rather than explore, his sources, occasionally creating unintended intersections. (Does the Baker ever register that Rapunzel is his sister?) The spirit of schoolyard jokes that trash fairy tales (cf. punchlines like “There are seven little dents in her maidenhead” and “Eat, eat, eat, doesn’t anybody wanna fuck anymore?”) lurks ominously nearby.

That latter joke, almost literally acted out, sounds a sort of degrading keynote to Timothy Sheader’s production, imported from London’s Regent’s Park, in revised form, for Shakespeare in the Park’s 50th anniversary season. A strange mash-up of good and bad ideas, Sheader’s staging, accompanied by Liam Steel’s incessant, fidgety choreography, removes any hint of affectionate bedtime-story atmosphere by framing the evening in the tale of a single father’s runaway child (Noah Radcliffe at the press performance), who narrates the shenanigans of these antique characters, improbably, via a backpack full of very contemporary toys. For reasons I won’t reveal, using a child as narrator creates considerable muddle in the middle of the drama.

The show’s designs are even more muddled: John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour’s set displays a wood heavily infested with man-made staircases, letting most of the action occur on a tanbark-strewn meadow in front of it, so that the characters spend the bulk of their time out of the woods. Emily Rebholz’s costumes veer from quaint (a Baker’s Wife dressed like a Victorian governess) to aggressively anti-quaint (Cinderella’s stepsisters, fashionettes straight from a Madonna video). The staging, in keeping with the negativity currently chic, goes for the glum whenever possible, which does little to texture the show’s already dour spirit, and a lot of the singing tends to be either screeched or rattled off with little musical sense. Donna Murphy, as the Witch, suffers least from the overall shortcomings; Jessie Mueller, a miscast Cinderella, and the oddly paired Denis O’Hare and Amy Adams, as the Baker and his Wife, handle the production’s maltreatment gamely. The Princes and Rapunzel sing decently. But one can’t say the Public has knocked Into the Woods out of the park—or even securely into it.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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YE OLDE JAMBOREE

Looking for a little romance under the stars? Head to the forest of Arden (a/k/a Central Park) for As You Like It, which kicks off the Public Theater’s 50th anniversary of Shakespeare in the Park. Director Daniel Sullivan sets this cherished comedy of mistaken identity in the rural American South around 1840. So who better to supply the original folk tunes than bluegrass-loving banjo man Steve Martin? And though they might call it Shakespeare in the Park, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods will be the second production of the season. It starts on July 23 and stars the lovely Amy Adams.

Mondays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: June 5. Continues through June 30, 2012

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March Mildness

With his handsome, chiseled profile framed by long, snowy white locks and a full Old Testament-white beard, Kevin Kline, made up as Lear, looks astonishingly like George Bernard Shaw—or, more precisely, like the John Farleigh woodcuts of GBS that illustrate various Shaw editions of the 1920s and ’30s. This is fine for the imagination—it sets you thinking what a splendid Captain Shotover or King Magnus Kline would make—but not so fine for King Lear. Shakespeare’s deep, dark, and violent play, which seems closer to the reality of our own time than almost any other play of his, demands a fury that simply isn’t a part of Kline’s emotional makeup. This isn’t a question of rant: An articulate, nervily acute actor with a big, well-trained voice that can pump up plenty of volume when required, Kline can roar, and often finds telling moments at which to do so. But you never feel him raging, against either his cruel daughters or the unjust universe, and Lear’s potential for rage is something an audience should sense even in his quietest and most tender moments. Understanding the text thoroughly, Kline notches up many striking points on his mild journey through the tragedy, but Lear, the terrifying, babyish, impossible, regally demanding man at its center, is nowhere to be seen. The “ hysterica passio” that Lear struggles to master before his mind gives way, comes off here as a potential danger of which Lear takes note rather than experiences, and you wonder how such a careful observer could have “ta’en too little care” of anything in his realm.

The question comes into high relief because James Lapine’s production seems to view Lear’s problem as a matter of bad luck in child-rearing rather than self-understanding. Before the house lights go down, we see three little girls competing to paint colors on a large map which, when the play begins, becomes the one on which Lear divvies up his kingdom; the little girls periodically reappear, sometimes behind their grown-up editions, at his madder moments. It’s impossible not to equate them with the three weird sisters who plague the hero of that other Shakespeare play about Scotland, especially as the three actresses who play their adult versions overact with witchlike awfulness. Given a hero off in Shaw country, and his daughters whooping it up in the Scottish play, the secondary characters are left to save the occasion, and they often come through bravely. Lapine, expectably, helps them by laying out each scene with lucidity and visual clarity, never oversimplifying or over-interpreting. (Though there are some odd textual tweaks: Why “as flies to wanton children“—is the word “boys” now automatically sexist?) Larry Bryggman makes a wonderful Gloucester, strong and just a touch foolhardy in the early scenes, movingly helpless in the later ones, ably partnered by Brian Avers’s jumpy, catlike Edgar. Michael Cerveris’s bluff, coarsely compassionate Kent, Michael Rudko’s stern soured idealist of an Albany, and Timothy D. Stickney’s creepy-cagey Oswald all strengthen the evening; even Logan Marshall-Green, who invests Edmund’s soliloquies with annoying showbiz overstatement, becomes moving and real in scenes with others.

Lear wrecks many lives by giving away his kingdom, but everything that follows this one heedless act makes sense in context. The puzzle of Patrick Marber’s oddly bifurcated new play, Howard Katz, is how its near-lunatic hero ever acquired the little kingdom he wrecks on the way to his own self-destruction. The son of an unassuming London barber and his wife, Howard is a cutthroat agent packing such ferocious anger that he alienates colleagues, clients, and family almost more easily than the producers he negotiates with. Marber doesn’t convey where the anger came from, or show us why anyone ever put up with it, though the information that Howard handles all of the agency’s loser clients is probably relevant. His problems seem to have something to do with God, but a hero so obtuse that he demands a sign from above while refusing to read the obvious ones already provided is hardly worth even God’s time. Nor is his story, as Marber tells it, particularly worth the quality acting that director Doug Hughes’s cast lavishes on it. Alfred Molina makes a gluttonous feast of Howard’s every tantrum, while the casting of Alvin Epstein, Elizabeth Franz, Jessica Hecht, and Euan Morton to play strings of small roles as the targets of his wrath is like a house painter using Rembrandt etchings as drop cloths.

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Theater

James Lapine’s Fran’s Bed is as pretty, and as empty, a theatrical event as you’re likely to see this year, a stylishly turned puzzle about a woman (Mia Farrow) who, having seen a modestly uninteresting life through into middle age, suddenly gives up living. She takes to her bed, gets hooked on painkillers, and finally lapses into a coma. Her apathetic, work-driven husband (Harris Yulin) is no more than marginally interested in her state; their two daughters, a big-city career girl (Julia Stiles) and a homebound divorcée (Heather Burns), are distraught but almost too busy acting out their old sibling rivalry to be much help. A dogged, Bible-toting Jamaican caregiver (Brenda Pressley) is the only one to function as a sustaining force, largely for her own fundamentalist reasons.

Rather than explore this somber matrix, Lapine uses it as an excuse for showbiz manipulation, fragmenting it to flash back and forward like the movie-of-the-week it often suggests, allowing Farrow to wander about as an animated version of the inanimate figure her family gazes at in an upstage hospice bed. The results don’t convey much more than the soap operas perpetually droning on the over-bed TV, or the sitcoms from which, when Lapine’s touch gets heavy-handed, the family bickering seems to have strayed. Despite the sweetness and grace of Farrow’s presence, and the intensity Yulin and Pressley bring to their roles, Fran’s Bed is mainly a source of zzz’s.

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Refracted Fairy Tales

Children love fairy tales, but only the most sophisticated and knowledgeable adults really believe in them. Take Stephen Sondheim, master of cynical wordplay: In his panoply of images, the rescuer of last resort was a prince slaying a dragon long before he wrote the score of Into the Woods, or even began collaborating with James Lapine. True, Sondheim is at best an unsteady believer: In his versions, all too often, the dragon is likely to eat the prince. Still, few Broadway musical writers have shared even that degree of faith. (The only fairy-tale figure in Oscar Hammerstein’s oeuvre is that “big black giant,” the theater audience.)

When the idea for Into the Woods came along in the late ’80s, it must have seemed ideal for Sondheim’s preoccupations, as well as matching Lapine’s recurrent themes—the unpredictability of love, the complexity of art-making, the difficulties and dangers of child-rearing. As it evolved, it took on the panoramic form that, though problematic for audiences, apparently appeals to Sondheim. The meager events of Follies are set off against the skits and songs of a Ziegfeld-style spectacle, those of Sunday in the Park alongside the details of Seurat’s painting; Assassins struggles to work up connections among its gallery of would-be president-killers. And Lapine’s struggle to link Cinderella and Rapunzel with Red Riding Hood and Jack the Giant Killer, by way of a paradoxical witch and a childless baker and his wife, bears marks of strain at every turn.

Lapine’s current recension of Into the Woods hasn’t lightened the load appreciably. If anything, his clearing away some of its digressive outgrowths has made the script seem cruder and more burdensome. Sondheim’s score sounds richer and stronger—but then, it’s an acknowledged fact that all Sondheim scores sound better on rehearing. Here the effect is as if the ultra-sophisticated songwriter were happy to revel in the innocent enchantments, leaving his librettist-director the burdensome task of finding an orderly way out of them. Where the earlier production looked as though Lapine was carefully sorting his way through the characters’ destinies, the current staging has the air of a set of problems being efficiently solved. Set designer Douglas W. Schmidt’s woods are indeed lovely, dark, and deep (his kiddie-book interiors look garish in contrast), but the traffic dashing through them often seems as hectic and unsurprising as a midtown rush hour. Nothing that might pull you into the magic of the tale (and up through it into a heightened view of reality) happens until somebody finally holds still and starts to sing, at which point Sondheim and his magical elves, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and conductor Paul Gemignani, can work their spell.

Even then, the spell only intermittently takes effect. The problem isn’t a noticeably wide discrepancy between the original roster and this one: There are members of the 1987 cast I’d gladly see onstage in these roles, but comparisons are odorous, as Dogberry says, and the difference between the two groups is very much a matter of win some, lose some. The real problem is the overall decline in Broadway singing standards in the intervening years. Though many onstage have good loud voices, in terms of vocal execution only Laura Benanti as Cinderella, and Gregg Edelman and Christopher Siebert as the brother princes, seem to fathom what Sondheim’s up to musically. And Vanessa Williams, though her stylistic impulses tempt her in an altogether different direction, makes musical sense of “The Last Midnight,” which I don’t recall Bernadette Peters doing. In fact, Williams, though her statuesque glamour is nowhere near as endearing as Peters’s waifish presence, makes the Witch’s role seem altogether more coherent.

She can’t make it seem as sympathetic, however. Lapine and Sondheim have added a duet for the Witch and her imprisoned ward Rapunzel (“Our Little World,” first sung in the London production) that, in jacking up the emotional tension, gives the character’s maternal protectiveness a creepy lesbian edge. Adding to this weird tilt, the Baker’s reunion with his father now seems to carry no emotional weight at all—in part because John McMartin, as the Narrator, tends to make everything he says sound piffling. In general, despite some strong acting (notably Stephen DeRosa’s as the Baker), the spoken sequences lack heart—not a great help to a script in which the intersecting stories already tend to get in each other’s way. Only when Sondheim’s at his best—not always the case in this score, despite the brilliance of his precision-tooled lyrics—are you likely to think that this is a fairy tale to trust.


The Man Who Had All the Luck, Arthur Miller’s first Broadway venture, is also a fairy tale of sorts. The only difference is that when an eccentric with a foreign accent appears out of nowhere in the depths of the night, to solve a problem that rescues the hero from an impossible dilemma, he (the eccentric) exclaims, “America!” instead of “Rumpelstiltskin!” Don’t start thinking this is one of Miller’s social dramas, though: The tiny, amiable fable may be steeped in small-town folksiness and baseball, but it’s really a psychological study in the art of self-help. The action takes place in 1938, and the work premiered in 1944, but neither the Depression nor World War II is more than a flickering presence, and Austria’s just a place guys with accents and funny mustaches come from to better themselves in the good old U.S.A.

Miller’s hero, however, is a native-born hometown boy who everybody believes is lucky. And the joke is, he is. This wouldn’t make for much of a drama except that he doesn’t believe it. Convinced that his good fortune has to turn bad someday, he sees it as a perpetual sword of Damocles hanging over him, with every windfall inching it closer to the fatal drop. A storm, a misunderstanding about his wife and the Austrian Rumpelstiltskin, and an elaborately contrived mix-up about (would you believe) mink ranching add up to the crisis that teaches him, predictably, to enjoy his good luck and leave destiny for others to fret over. Somehow it called up memories of Jules Feiffer’s antithetical parable, about the guy who tried to outwit the laundromat machine that always gave his wash back with a sock or two missing. Feiffer was able to do the whole thing in eight panels, of course, and summed up the moral far more cogently (“Stop trifling with the laws of Nature—bring the machine more socks!”). But then, he wasn’t under the pressure of constructing a marketable play in the old Broadway style, a tactic Miller sensibly gave up on as he progressed.

And progress he did. The two cogent reasons for seeing The Man Who Had All the Luck, despite its not being much of a play, are the amount of promise it shows and the fun of measuring the vast distance between it and Miller’s for-real plays. Even All My Sons, shaped inside Ibsen’s 70-year-old cookie cutter, walks taller and more animatedly than this early, cautious attempt. At the same time, The Man Who Had All the Luck can stand with later Miller in its humor; in the easy flow of dialogue in its best scenes; in one or two smartly caught character snapshots (especially a tetchy rich eccentric, played stylishly here by Mason Adams); and in a few big moments where you can hear the themes that will occupy Miller through his whole career sounding out for the first time, with the big, ringing tones of a brand-new carillon. The most noticeable of these is the play’s emotional pivot, when the hero’s younger brother, a likable lunk who’s been raised by their father to think of nothing but a baseball career, finally hears the bitter truth from a major-league scout. For a minute, as father and brothers sit silent and helpless in their pain, a procession of Miller sibling miseries to come seems to wash over the stage: Kellers, Lomans, Eddie Carbone with his immigrant boarders, the embittered brothers of The Price. Nothing these later families go through is mentioned, but the scene seems to carry them all, encoded in its DNA.

It’s also the point where Scott Ellis’s production is most effective. Otherwise, the staging is more smooth than distinctive, the acting more reasonable role-filling than character creation. The exceptions to the latter clause are Adams, as aforesaid, and Sam Robards as the handily appearing Austrian. Chris O’Donnell, in the title role, is the nominal star, a pleasantly competent young actor with a low-voltage stage presence. Samantha Mathis, as his wife, is yet another of those Hollywood girls with no personality and a Minnie Mouse voice. I wish the Roundabout were a movie company—then, presumably, it would only hire trained stage actors. Meantime, the real star of the show is an authentic 1930s Marmon roadster—the most beautiful automobile I’ve ever seen on any stage. It’s also the only cast member that doesn’t seem dwarfed by Allan Moyer’s vast, barren set, which looks more like an airplane hangar than like any space called for in the script. He shouldn’t take the name of the theater so deeply to heart.

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Mae in January

For the moment, Western drama seems to have become Mae West-ern drama. West made a cameo appearance in the York Theatre’s recent Jolson & Company (not seen by me); Dalí’s famous portrait of her face as a seductively furnished bedroom inspired set designer Neil Patel’s best moment in Lobster Alice. The rowdy revival of her own first play, Sex, has just been extended through January. And now comes Claudia Shear’s Dirty Blonde, directed and “co-conceived” by James Lapine, which alternates dramatized snippets of West’s career with the story of a contemporary boy and girl who both worship West, but can’t decide which one has the right to dress like her.

The craze has its validity. Apart from being an artist of exceptional interest in her own time, West makes a highly viable icon for an era when definitions of both sex and art are widely contested. We don’t know what’s permissible and impermissible anymore, or even what’s male and what’s female. A bundle of paradoxes and confusions in herself, West’s admirable gift was to embody—surely the mot juste—everything that confuses us, on both topics, in one smirking epigram, or one roll of her corseted hips. However crude when she was starting out or grotesque when she got much older, her sex appeal was always a matter of comedy. Yet West was at the center of not one but three major censorship uproars: Sex was shut down by the NYPD (largely to prevent her bringing in her queer-celebrating second play, The Drag). She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel made so much money, and caused such clamor among the bluenoses, that they were the chief cause of Hollywood’s tightening the Production Code in 1933. And in the late ’30s, after an appearance on Edgar Bergen’s radio show, she was virtually banned from broadcasting. (She told his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, “Come up and play in my woodpile.”)

The irony was that West’s sensibility was not too new for the censors whose hackles she raised but too old—the standard repartee of burlesque and lower-class vaudeville, circa 1890, with its standard physical accompaniment of raised eyebrows and undulating shoulders. That she used the style to make herself, as performer and writer, a locus for a wide range of sex-related issues shouldn’t obscure the fact that she was a period piece, so to speak, from the very start. (Shear’s play suggests that the source of West’s ’90s style was her controlling mother.) She stands as a teasingly ambiguous rebuke to the fake sophistication and postwar disillusionment of the Jazz Age. We knew all about it before, her persona says; there was no need to topple monarchies and invent modernism just to face a little reality. Paramount, which put her firmly in the 1890s from her first starring role on, knew exactly what it was doing when it tried to obtain for her the film rights to Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession; one can easily imagine her both justifying the procuress’s trade and defending her daughter from it. (She is one of the few female stars of the 1930s to willingly play scenes in which she nurtures younger and prettier women.)

That she was a conscious archaism of course only got the censors angrier. The self-important hate nothing more than being mocked, and West’s Bowery-melodrama fun kicked them right in the center of their equally Victorian (but more bourgeois) sensibilities, where the Freud-ian subtleties of a Philip Barry or S.N. Behrman would pass them by unnoticed. Hence theviolent reaction. West had a wide range of sympathies, and her jokes can cut in a great many directions. African Americans, even the giggling maid who peels her a grape, are more like human beings in her pictures than in others of the time; homosexuality, though unmentionable after the police debacle of The Drag, has a persistent, quietly hovering presence. Abortion, prostitution, and battered-wife situations crop up glancingly; a tragic subplot of Sex contains vague hints of then-incurable venereal disease. And at the center, whether the character is called Margy Lamont, Diamond Lil, or Klondike Annie, there is always Mae West, the woman who revels in male attention but has no interest in becoming an object of male ownership.

In another sense, though, West is feminism’s camp opposite—the heroine of Parker Tyler’s gloriously convoluted theory that she appealed to male homosexuals because her matronly look and throwback attitudes represented a gay man’s mother taking on his postures to signify her acceptance of his ways. Certainly a lot of gay men over the decades have taken on her gestures and appearance. The twist in Dirty Blonde is that the male character, played by Kevin Chamberlin, who we’re set up to believe is the typical West-imitating drag queen, turns out to be a straight cross-dresser, a white male heterosexual who finds freedom in the ’90s gown and picture hat just as the actress manqué played by Shear does. It’s a love affair of dueling Mae Wests. Given the flashes of biography with which it alternates, it’s also a joke on West’s own narcissism. The thought of two Mae Wests clinching in the dark would have enthralled her.

The trouble with Dirty Blonde is that it goes no further. We get a quick survey-analysis of West’s career. And we get scenes, some touching, from the two Westians’ improbable love affair. But all that holds these parallel strands to-gether is Lapine’s creamy-smooth, visually hieratic production. Shear, brash and mellow, is always fun to watch; Chamberlin, a wistful pink boulder of a man, matches her ably. Bob Stillman handles the musical chores, plus a string of small parts, with appealing nimbleness. If you wonder later why they bothered, it won’t be because you had a bad time.

Much the same applies to Elyse Singer’s staging of Sex, brasher and coarser than Dirty Blonde, but equally straightforward in its innocent contemporaneity. Here West is saluted as an anti-censorship heroine—both acts open with excerpts from the 1926 obscenity trial that closed Sex—but her persona, and her writing, are praised as early avatars of camp. At its best, Singer’s staging is high-quality travesty in the old style; at its worst it degenerates into mere shouting. But Carolyn Bauemler’s Westian heroine sustains a sexy dignity inside the staging’s exaggerations, and so do T. Ryder Smith as her English lover, Cynthia Darlow as the dowager she one-ups, and Andrew Elvis Miller as the rich boy she nearly snags. If the noise level’s high for such a small space, so is the authenticity, once you peel away the outer grapeskin of camp intentions.

** If only one could peel away a few layers of verbiage from David Hirson’s Wrong Mountain, a play that could use a little of West’s common sense, and a great many fewer speeches that display the author’s interest in grandstanding. But this grape might turn out to be Peer Gynt’s onion: Keep peeling and you’d find nothing at its core. It dismays me greatly because I admired Hirson’s previous play, La Bête, which was essentially the same story stood on its head, only in rhymed couplets and 17th-century costume, which gave director Richard Jones chances for brilliance the current item never offers. This time around, an ultra-snobbish poet, infuriated that his ex-wife has taken up with a wealthy commercial playwright, bets that he can write a successful play and have it produced within six months, which leads him to a playwriting competition that in its ineptitude makes most such enterprises look like the heyday of the Moscow Art Theatre.

Though Hirson’s nonstop verbal cascading can’t help tossing up a few delicious sprays of comedy, his own play wouldn’t get very far in such a competition because it’s so rooted in falsity. Neither his poet hero nor anyone else seems to know what a play is, other than a middle-class Broadway matinee special, nor why anybody might write one for reasons other than money. They keep flogging the idea that there’s a thriving big-money market for nonmusical plays, which hasn’t been true for 20 years. They all also apparently know an obscure quote from Strindberg, in which he condemns the theater as a “biblia pauperum,” though no one explains why it’s so evil for the poor to have an illustrated Bible, or why anyone should care what a semi-psychotic Swedish scribbler said a century ago. Even more disheartening, the poet ultimately falls in love with the magic of the theater, thus depriving Hirson of the chance to satirize some of the contemporary performance practices that make playwrights’ lives a nightmare. As a painful capstone, the hero composes a poem to his cast in “asymptotic dactyls”—which turn out to be nothing but standard iambic-pentameter rhymed couplets. Ron Rifkin handles the hateful hero’s logorrhea with passionate exactitude; Michael Winter, Daniel Davis, Daniel Jenkins, and Bruce Norris make the most of their rarish opportunities to get a word in edgewise. But it’s embarrassing to watch Hirson carry on his quarrel with the theater in public; he could have used the time to write a play instead.