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THEATER

She Done Her Right

Actress-writer Claudia Shear brings Mae West back to Broadway in the time-traveling personal comedy 'Dirty Blonde.'

May 28, 2000|PATRICK PACHECO | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar

There are many ways to get over a man. But for Claudia Shear the prescription for a disastrous end to a perfect love affair was to write and star in a play about Hollywood legend Mae West, who summed her attitude toward love this way: "Don't cry for a man who's left you--the next one may fall for your smile."

"I was absolutely devastated, and the fact that Mae had this persona of never having been devastated, of no one ever having broken up with her, that was very powerful and attractive for me," Shear says. "Just having to take her on, to play her, was empowering. You couldn't schlump out, act heartbroken, saying, 'I hate myself, I'm ugly' and pull off Mae West.' "

Shear's therapy resulted in "Dirty Blonde," a new comedy that has been nominated for five Tony Awards, including two for her--one for best play as author and one for her leading performance. The Tony winners will be announced next Sunday.

Shear's acclaim comes after a triumphant off-Broadway showcase in January at the New York Theatre Workshop, the 189-seat theater where "Rent" started. Earlier this month, the show reopened on Broadway at the Helen Hayes, and the critics' reviews were even more glowing this time. "Stand up, boys, and take your hats off. Mae West is back on Broadway," raved Ben Brantley in the New York Times, referring to the fact that the iconic star of such 1930s classic movies as "She Done Him Wrong" and "I'm No Angel" had, in fact, first bowled over the Great White Way. "West is proving she still has the power to shake things up. She has also, not incidentally, provided the inspiration for what is hands down the best new American play of the season."

Shaking things up, of course, is becoming something of a Shear specialty. The 38-year-old actress-writer blew onto the national stage five years ago in her one-woman off-Broadway hit "Blown Sideways Through Life," a sardonic journey through the 64 jobs the actress either quit or was fired from, including answering phones in a massage parlor, waiting tables and mopping bathrooms. The piece, which also played the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles, was a humanist celebration of the common laborer and his or her dreams and aspirations. Or, as the feisty Shear says, "nobody is just a typist, just a dishwasher, just a cook, just a porter. . . ."

Shear's on similar populist ground with "Dirty Blonde." Not with West, of course, who is always presented as uber-Hollywood royalty, but through the two other characters in the play. There's zaftig Jo, an unsuccessful actress (also played by Shear), and schlumpy Charlie, a cross-dressing librarian--two misfits who meet at West's Brooklyn grave and, through their shared obsession, grow into an unlikely romance.

"Dirty Blonde" time-travels three periods: the early part of the century as West, then in vaudeville, perfects the sexy siren that will enter legend; the 1980s, which sees West calcify into a grotesque version of her youth for "Sextette," her 12th and final film; and present day, in which the myth of West works its magic on Jo and Charlie in a way not dissimilar to the effect it had on Shear. Both are attracted to Mae because she is a "tough girl," the kind of girl you don't bring home to mother. A "tough girl" doesn't care because, as Jo says in the show, "she doesn't want you to bring her home to mother, she doesn't want to meet your mother."

"Jo and Charlie are attracted to Mae because she has the power of somebody who has the temerity to believe in themselves," Shear says. "That's why famous people are so attractive, not because they're famous, but because they have that temerity."

A broken heart (and a private life she guards fiercely) notwithstanding, Shear appears to have some of that same belief as she lounges on a couch in her dressing room, dressed in flowing thrift-shop black and bargain open-toed pumps, her Botticelli locks framing her face against a backdrop of congratulatory floral bouquets.

*

Like West, Shear was born in Brooklyn (where she still lives in a fourth-floor walk-up.) Her intellectual references to Jean-Paul Sartre, Dante and Shakespearean scholar Jan Kott stand in contrast to the rapid-fire working-class cadence of her speech (her father was a fireman, her mother a cosmetics firm executive).

The brainy chatter also stands in contrast to the anti-intellectualism of West, who gleefully fractured her syntax. "It was not so much being anti-intellectual for Mae than not being a phony," Shear says. "You didn't pretend to be what you weren't. She could be quite a bit of a grande dame and a tough girl."

"Tough Girl" was the working title of "Dirty Blonde" for many years, and Shear does not dispute that toughness and drive are two of the characteristics she shares with her subject.

It's not entirely coincidental that "Dirty Blonde" is, perhaps, the first time a woman has successfully written a Broadway play (not a one-person show) as a starring vehicle for herself since West did it in the 1920s with "Diamond Lil."

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