Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

'Dirty Blonde' Could Have Used a Little More Mae West


As a famous barber once said, "At last my arm is complete again!"  This is how I feel as the 2000-2010 theater season has finally opened.

I was really looking forward to seeing Dirty Blonde at the Signature Theatre and let me assure everyone this is not at all a sequel to the musical Legally Blonde.  What it does deal with is one of the most fascinating women of the twentieth century.  All I knew about Mae West previously was that she was a sexy actress famous for the line "Why don't you come up and see my some time" and appeared with W. C. Fields. But I've learned so much more.

If only Dirty Blonde just dealt with the life of West, it could have been outstanding.  However, playwright Claudia Shear chose to add two uninteresting fictional characters who were both loses but had in common a love of West to help tell the story.

Director Jeremy Skidmore has assembled a superb cast. Emily Skinner plays both the charismatic West and a contemporary fan, Jo. Hugh Ness plays Jo's friend Charlie (they met at West's Brooklyn grave on West's birthday) as well as a myriad of characters including W.C. Fields. J. Fred Shiffman has seven roles including Frank Wallace (West's husband) and even plays the piano. All three are terrific in their respective roles.

The problem is the play. I could care less about whether actress Jo and librarian Charlie will ever become a couple reminiscing throughout about the career of West.

Skinner nails the role of West and if only she could spend the entire evening in that role versus spending time also in the role of Jo.

When the play has Charlie dressing up as West for Halloween, that did it for me.

By pure coincidence, I noticed the book "She Always Knew How - Mae West" by Charlotte Chandler.  I couldn't put it down. I envisioned Dirty Blonde as an homage to West. There's so much material there. She was a playwright having written nine plays that were produced and three unperformed.  She appeared in 12 films and directed many of them.She was so controversial; her appearance on the CBS show "Person to Person" was never broadcast. She also wrote four books.

She discovered George Raft (he was a chauffeur). Not only did she help Cary Grant with his career, she is credited with saving Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy.  Billy Wilder developed the film Sunset Boulevard for her but she refused the role. (He got the monkey idea from West who owned one.)

Mae West was an iconic figure.  England's Royal Air Force pilots named their bulky life jackets "Mae Wests". She was so legendary that she had a cruller named after her.  One of her best lines was "I've been in more laps than a napkin".

One day I hope Skinner gets the opportunity to play West for an entire evening. She'd be great!

Dirty Blonde continues at the intimate Signature Ark Theatre in Arlington, VA until Oct. 4. For tickets, call 703-573-7328 or visit

Next up at the Signature is a world premiere theatrical event First You Dream": The Music of Kander & Ebb which features selections from all 17 of their shows from Flora the Red Menace to Curtains accompanied by a 19 piece orchestra. It runs until Sept. 27.

The rest of the season includes Show Boat (Nov. 10-January 17, I Am My Own Wife (January 12-March 7), Sweeney Todd (Feb. 9- April 4), [title of show] (March 30- June 20), and the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon's Sycamore Trees (May 18 - June 30).

For comments, write to

Photo Credit: Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.

Related Articles View More Washington, DC Stories

Buy at the Theatre Shop

T-Shirts, Mugs, Phone Cases & More

From This Author Charles Shubow