DIRTY BLONDE-Cady Huffman & Joshua Morgan by David A. Lee
Cady Huffman & Joshua Morgan

Claudia Shear’s DIRTY BLONDE is a warm and loving play centering on Jo (Cady Huffman) and Charlie (Joshua Morgan). They meet in Queens at Mae West’s grave on the star’s birthday. Jo is a wanna-be actress and he is a rather shy film archivist. They both identify as total losers and are completely obsessed with the late movie star.  Therefore the savvy viewer will instantly know they are perfect for each other. Their scenes together are juxtaposed with scenes of Mae West’s life and career. The transitions between the two stories are cinematically smooth and fast, which must be a challenge to Ms. Huffman who has frequent changes as she shuttles between playing Jo and playing Mae. Speaking of costumes, Frank Cazares’ designs for Mae West are just great. They all brought to mind the styles Mae wore during various stages of her career.

William Ryall & Cady Huffman

There are many truly wonderful moments throughout the play.  We are treated to some of Mae West’s sharpest double-entendres loaded with an openness towards sexuality that was quite rare for her time. The play even gives us glimpses into the private and somewhat unusual life led by Ms. West. In her younger days we see a tough, ambitious young woman going against the odds to achieve the kind of success that was able to save Paramount from bankruptcy. In her older years, we watch as she went from a character to a caricature, never acknowledging her age and usually acting, sounding, and looking very inappropriate.

Cady Huffman as Mae West

The loneliness that we sense from the senior Mae as she rattles around her penthouse apartment in the Ravenswood is clearly echoed by Jo and Charlie. Yet these two star obsessed New Yorkers manage to help define their own characters via things that Mae said and did. Meanwhile, Mae’s onscreen persona was comprised of little bits of everything from other genres and people. For example, the exaggerated swaying of her derriere, Mae drew from the drag queens of the day. Her insistence on doing things her way, even if it meant jail time, she gathered from the various impresarios on Broadway just after the turn of the 20th century.

There are plenty of laughs throughout, although they are occasionally tinged with a layer of warm and fuzzy, but never to the point of being saccharine moments.  A perfect example is when Ms. West gives the 17 year-old Charlie one of her gowns. Watching him with that dress, you can see his self-confidence rise as if the dress were passing on some of his idol’s strengths.

William Ryall, Joshua Morgan, Cady Huffman

Under the beautifully subtle direction of Philip Wm. McKinley, the show never lags and the cast is uniformly wonderful, developing a strong sense of rapport with the audience and with each other. The Tony-Award winning Ms. Huffman just has to walk onstage, flash one smile and she has won us over. Her Jo is appropriately loud and boisterous, probably in an attempt to counter the quiet and solitude when she is home alone. Mr. Morgan makes Charlie a three-dimensional character. His embarrassment at sharing certain personal details mixed with the fear of being ridiculed, or even rejected, read with a poignant honesty that was quite touching. William Ryall has the challenge of playing multiple roles as he steps into the shoes of many of the men in Mae’s life. From bodybuilder to dispensable husband to director, Mr. Ryall gives each one such a specific definition, that you instantly know who he is as soon as he begins to speak.

Joshua Morgan and Cady Huffman

Jimmy Cuomo’s elegantly simple scenic design is simply elegant. It allows the smooth and seamless scene changes to take place while easily morphing into a Studio Soundstage or a Cemetery. The excellent lighting design by Moira Wilke works in perfect harmony with the set to make it instantly recognizable as to where the current scene is taking place.

DIRTY BLONDE Is truly a wonderful play written by Claudia Shear, based on a concept by Claudia Shear and James Lapine. So, if I may paraphrase one of Mae’s most famous lines, “Why don’t you come up and see her!”

DIRTY BLONDE is playing at CVRep (the old IMAX in Cathedral City) now through January 29, 2023.  For further information or to buy tickets, go to CVRep.org.

Photos by David A. Lee