Mae West’s Sex

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Nearly everyone who has
looked into the matter now agrees that the real reason for this raid wasn’t
Sex, whose greatest provocation was that its prostitute-protagonist didn’t
apologize, shrink away or die in the end, but rather West’s other play,
The Drag, a raucous and equally unapologetic transvestite spectacle that
homophobic officials were determined to keep out of New York. These works and
her trial launched West into a new orbit of notoriety, placing her swaggering,
voluptuous persona at the center of an important public debate about the proper
place of explicit sexuality in “legit” theater. West shrewdly exploited
this new interest, and the most important result was Diamond Lil, the
vehicle that finally gave her entree to Hollywood. Ironically, in trying to
crush her, the right-thinking people of the Sex scandal sped her transformation
from disreputable cult figure to nationally respectable star–neither the
first nor the last case of censorship reaping precisely the crop it sets out
to burn.

Much of this may sound familiar
at a time when Boss Rudy is closing down sex shops, cynically attacking the
Brooklyn Museum and openly pandering to the Conservative Party. As I was watching
this first revival of Sex since its forced closure, however–directed
by Elyse Singer in a small speakeasy-like room off the lobby of the wonderful
Gershwin Hotel, an exuberantly designed artwork in itself–I was reminded
how much more knowing, cynical and sophisticated today’s hypocrisies are
than the ones the play originally faced. In the 1920s, West grew rich playing
on middle-class curiosity about the country’s new spirit of sexual adventurism
and the city’s increasingly visible gay subculture, which made many authorities
nervous. Today, that subculture is no longer new, nearly everyone is middle
class and their AIDS-era curiosities and “slumming” impulses can be
satisfied in private–via corporate-distributed porn and Madonna videos–while
the majority maintains its uprightness in public by voting for people like Giuliani.

If only one could be arrested
today for putting on a 1990s equivalent of Sex. That would at least imply
that the theater could still get a political rise out of people beyond the idiotic
membership of the Catholic League, that some fabulously hard-hitting, new campy
vamp with wide appeal had thrown her lot in with live performance, and that
censorship (the best free publicity a free society can offer) wasn’t entirely
concerned with the insidious business of controlling access to mass media.

In any case, Sex,
whose script remained unpublished until 1997, turns out to be something of an
artifact. Singer and company, with the aid of a live pianist (Evan Hause), have
done fine work compensating with energetic, present-day campiness for what might
otherwise seem only quaintly risque, using explicit sexual gestures and deliberately
“quoted” characterizations in an attempt to make the work feel contemporary.
There are also several standout performances in the entertaining, two-and-a-half-hour
evening. Nevertheless, for all its virtues, the production smacks as much of
historical appreciation as of theatrical immediacy–and this feeling is
exacerbated by tedious wraparound material in which cast members speak passages
from West’s trial transcript and other researched documents. Sex
tells the story of Margy LaMont, a Montreal prostitute determined to dump her
pimp Rocky and make it on her own. Possessing not so much a heart of gold as
a scrupulous sense of fairness in gold-digging, Margy thinks of herself as a
sexual entrepreneur (“There’s a chance of rising to the top of every
profession”), and she’s outraged when a society woman named Clara
Stanton, caught in the brothel after being rolled for her jewelry by Rocky,
accuses her of the robbery. Forced to leave Montreal, Margy becomes a nightclub
singer in Trinidad, where Clara’s naive son Jimmy happens to be traveling.
Jimmy falls in love with her, proposes marriage and takes her back to Connecticut
to meet Mom and Dad. The play’s best scene is the surprise reunion of Margy
and Clara in which Margy gets to talk openly about hypocrisy. In the end, she
neither capitulates to extortion nor allows herself to be bullied morally, but
rather makes a mature decision to go off with another, worldlier man.

Part of the fun of the show,
for anyone who remembers West from films, is the realization of what a wonderful
vehicle this piece must have been for her, with its unabashedly suggestive,
punning dialogue and multiple opportunities to strut as only she could (the
brothel scenes and the built-in nightclub numbers, for instance). The softer-edged
actress who plays Margy here, however, Carolyn Baeumler, with her platinum,
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes hair and mile-long lashes, seems to have taken
her cue more from kiss-blowing Marilyn than from West, and this takes the sting
out of what ought to be shotgun deliveries. Cynthia Darlow is sharper as clueless,
rich Clara, as is Nina Hellman as the serenely pillish French maid Marie and
T. Ryder Smith as Lt. Gregg, the handsome sailor who worships Margy with full
knowledge of her past. Dominic Hamilton-Little is also priceless in three dead-on
cameos: Manly the “low down graft collector,” Jenkins the conceited
English butler, and Condez, the Spanish nightclub MC in Trinidad who greets
his guests in pasties, a hair flower and a flimsy, pink flamenco vest. The production’s
main problem (apart from the awful trial material) is that all its marvelous
individual contributions aren’t fused together with a unifying style. It’s
a sort of camp-as-camp-can motley, with George Xenos’ tacky lip-sofa-and-fireplace
set pulling one way, the extremely varied piano music pulling another, the broadly
farcical cameo performances pulling still another, and the more seriously melodramatic
lead characterizations pulling still another. This motley is itself sometimes
fun, and the show is worth seeing just for the strong actors. It may disappoint
those hoping to celebrate West as a still-dangerous taboo-breaker, though.

The Gershwin Hotel, 7
E. 27th St. (betw. 5th & Madison Aves.), 439-8122, through Jan. 16.


Elsa Edgar By
Bob Kingdom

Asked to generalize a
few years ago about why so much contemporary theater was dull, the late East
German playwright Heiner Muller said that it came down to the tendency among
directors and playwrights “to make something into a corpse that one can
dissect, in order to prove that one is living.” A perfect example of this
tendency is the wraparound “research material” in Sex, and another
is the entire solo show Elsa Edgar, written and performed by Bob Kingdom.

Elsa Edgar deals
with two famous and roughly contemporaneous figures: the socialite, columnist
and radio host Elsa Maxwell and the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover–both of
whom wielded enormous power to manipulate public opinion, whimsically destroying
and inflating many people’s reputations, and both of whom shared their
lives with same-sex companions without openly acknowledging homosexual inclinations.
(Hoover, in fact, was viciously homophobic.) These similarities are interesting
in principle, but Kingdom exhausts their meager measure of inherent theatricality
after the first 20 of his show’s 85 minutes. He plays homely and fat Elsa
in a plain print dress, dons a dickey and tailcoat to become dapper Edgar, and
eventually displays both costumes together to drive home the analogy that’s
already been obvious for an hour. His parallel monologues bog down very quickly
in name- and fact-dropping, and make the same few points about egomania and
sexual hypocrisy again and again without meaningful variation; and his embodiment
of the figures is rarely compelling enough to serve as compensation.

Primary Stages,
354 W. 45th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 333-4052, through Jan. 16.

Another American: Asking
And Telling
Marc Wolf

Wolf’s solo show Another American: Asking and Telling, by contrast,
is an exquisite example of research as pure animating force–an unforgettable,
extraordinarily powerful piece about the U.S. military’s “Don’t
ask, don’t tell” policy. Directed by Joe Mantello and produced by
The New Group in association with the actor and playwright David Marshall Grant,
Another American is based on more than 150 interviews Wolf conducted
over three years with people directly affected by the policy. It’s the
best and most important work I’ve seen in the genre Anna Deavere Smith
invented of “impersonation of interviewees”–other than Smith’s
work itself, that is. Wearing plain light slacks and a t-shirt, and variously
standing and sitting around a sterile institutional platform with a narrow projection
and a single American flag lonely amid a dozen empty flagpoles at back, Wolf
nonjudgmentally mimics the words and demeanors of a series of “real”
characters, some named and some anonymous. He isn’t equally skilled at
all the imitations but (unlike with Kingdom) this doesn’t matter, because
some of them are excellent and because the excerpts themselves are so gripping
they pull you in like a suspenseful plot.

Wolf has shrewdly organized
the excerpts (particularly in the second half of the two-hour evening) so that
they seem to comment on one another like a sequential argument. Thus, the new
recruit who describes making it with a drill instructor establishes just how
much illicit gay sex exists in the Marines, whereas the Hispanic naval officer
who testifies to the Senate that gayness offends his religion (although ethnic
harassment is “perfectly acceptable” to him) establishes the fear
and ignorance that qualify in the services as normal. The discharged lesbian
sergeant (Miriam Ben Shalom) who fought and won temporary reinstatement through
the courts suggests the promise of progressive judicial action, but an Army
captain then convincingly explains why soldiers can’t be expected to have
the same constitutional rights as civilians. Among the show’s richest juxtapositions
is that of a colonel who speaks of the danger of tampering with the invincible
macho self-image that makes U.S. troops so effective and a charmingly swishy
Vietnam vet nicknamed Mary Alice by his buddies, who survived their terrible
combat ordeal partly because of his unique emotional availability.

There is much, much more,
including gut-twisting testimony from victims of gay-bashing assaults and their
relatives, soldiers’ stories of forced “outings” and evasive
talk by the professor (Charles Moskos) who proposed “Don’t ask, don’t
tell” and still defends it. No matter what your opinion about this policy,
Wolf’s extremely timely show will likely leave you fuming and circumspect.
At the very least, it should be required viewing for everyone who makes U.S.
military policy or is responsible for enforcing it.

Theater at St. Clement’s,
423 W. 46th St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 279-4200, through Jan. 30.