in the press.....
IN PARADISE - June - July 2006
a great-looking, giddy little production, playfully mocking
and reveling in the impossible glamour of those Depression-era movies
about money and mores.... As the criminal couple, Jeremy Shamos and
Hellman are smooth as silk. Carolyn Baeumler is elegant and sympathetic
as their target, Madame Colet."
-New York Times (Anita
6/23/06 - "Trouble in Paradise: The Impossible Glamour That Was
Lubitsch" - Click
here to read entire review
with jaunty aplomb by Elyse Singer, the actors glide smoothly
into a witty simulacrum of the movie. Jeremy Shamos, his voice a
cultivated purr, excels as the suave international thief Gaston
Morescu; the vulpine Nina Hellman tears amusingly into the role of his
life-partner in crime, and Carolyn Baeumler has a sweetly soft presence
as their easy-living, free-spirited mark...Set designer Lauren Halpern
and costumer Theresa
Squire—squeezing great-looking work out of a presumably tight
budget—help make this stylish production pop like a bottle of domestic
champagne. Trouble in Paradise is Off-Off heaven: a $20 show
that plays like a million bucks. "Time Out New
York (Adam Feldman) 6/29/06
here to read entire review
his wide brow and taut grin, Shamos radiates a debonair
insouciance, and wide-eyed Hellman nearly outdoes him with her brassy
guile...The director and designers have great fun with the piece's
costumes and art deco milieu. Hellman's gold lamé, Rattazzi's
garters, even an unpretentious telephone table threaten to steal the
show (perhaps not such a surprise in a comedy about thievery). The
bouncy, blurting jazz score by Steven Bernstein also makes away with
one's heart...Paradise is a fairly Edenic evening." -- Village Voice (Soloski) "To Heiress Human: Frothy swindle comedy
captures that Lubitsch touch" Click
read entire review
perfect entertainment for a summer evening. One can almost hear
the martinis chilling all throughout this detailed production, directed
beautifully by Elyse Singer... the stellar cast of Trouble in Paradise
is hilarious... For those of you craving a satisfying taste of
yesteryear, Trouble in Paradise is the perfect dish. It goes down easy,
fills one up, and leaves one completely fulfilled. Lubitsch would be
Criscuolo), 6/19/06 - "Trouble in
Paradise" - Click here to
read entire review
theatrical adaptation would make Lubitsch proud, as the jokes and
punch lines consistently hit their mark. The entire cast of Trouble in
Paradise had the audience in its palm and roaring approval, as reliably
as a laugh track. "
-offoffbroadway.com (Adrienne Cea),
6/16/06 - "Stolen Hearts" - Click here to
read entire review
once in a while a reviewer discovers a sparkling gem in a little
theatre off-off Broadway... Singer gives us action, smart snappy
movement, perfectly timed dialogue and a great cast. TROUBLE IN
PARADISE is a swell show with great charm, sophistication, and panache,
and is entertaining from start to finish. Long may it wave!"
-Lively Arts, 6/22/06 -
read entire review
here to read Time Out New York's feature article "BELLE OF THE
actor Nina Hellman goes high camp in Trouble in Paradise. "
Frogs by Ruth Margraff - February 2002
"Cherish good avant-garde theater, like Red Frogs
at P.S. 122...brilliant ideas build on one another like a crossword
puzzle, and the stage and audience share an in-on-the-joke
FROGS fuses a bewildering variety of ideas and themes and styles into
almost indescribable but very exciting evening." - nytheatre.com
"[RED FROGS] takes its audience on a joyful glee ride
through a landscape
of contemporary culture blurred and distorted by tidal waves and the
own wicked sense of humor...the play's carnival atmosphere bursts with
joie de vivre...While there's plenty of meaning to be found in RED
the proceedings at P.S. 122 make Margraff's message a
roller coaster of fun." -- AmericanTheater Web
"a mouth-watering cast of downtown all-stars"
- TIME OUT NEW YORK
"the performances are all outstanding."
"Entertaining, odd and sexy...the actors
handle themselves beautifully, keeping the reigns firmly in their
while still letting the play take on a life of its own...like a
or work of art or music, each spectator will have a highly
idea of what is taking place." -- SHOW BUSINESS
by Mae West - December 1999 - February 2000
To view additional feature
on SEX, click here.
New York Times
Canby), 2/13/00 - "Mae West, Still There for Us to Come Up and See" Click
here to read entire review
show is good comedy."
New York Times
12/24/99 - "Mae West's First Play (for the Stage, That Is)" Click
here to read entire review
"Bursts with verve and
12/28/99 - "West with the Might" Click
here to read entire review
12/22/99 - "Come Up and See it Some Time" Click
here to read entire review
"Elyse Singer and the
Hourglass Group have
put back the sting in 'Sex' and made it a hot ticket once again...this
is the first hot date play of the 21st century."
1/21/00 - "Sex"
has to wonder,
if it hadnít been for gay men--and simpatico women such as
Singer and Baeumler--would
there ever have been a Mae West? Fortunately for the arts, all
lived to entertain another day. Just like the revival of
2/1/00 - "Wicked Wit of the West"
"The most inspired revival
choice of the
year...'Sex' succeeds as a searing conflagration of lust and wit."
New York Blade
1/7/00 - "Red Hot: 'Sex' Still Satisfies"
"The ingenious concept of the
the charm and energy of the players--have made this one of the more
theatre-evenings of the season. Carolyn Baeumler, in West's
role, is a vampish delight. But the entire cast, each in his or her own
style, is great fun to watch."
(Loney) - "SEX" -- A Play by Mae West [****] Click
here to read entire review
bushy-tailed, this crack
ensemble enacts this somewhat serious farce with an aphrodesiacal
To see the tribe of them strut their stuff is to feel alive; at sundry
moments I was tempted to leap onstage and join them."
- Jan. 2000 - "'Sex' at the Gershwin Hotel" Click
here to read entire review
"Baeumler is great...Hellman
- Feb. 2000 - "Sex"
'SEX' FEATURES ON THE
- "'Sex' and Synanon Onstage" - by Cintra Wilson
Voice - "Mae Day! Mae Day!" - by Alexis Soloski
Criterion - "Mae Days" - by Mark Steyn
(GER) - "Hedwig aus Ostberlin" - by Henrike Thomsen
by Sarah McCord
the obvious talents of Ms. McCord and her director, the seemingly
Elyse Singer, who's been responsible for more interesting theatre
than almost any other young director in New York..." -- (November
by Mae West [reading at New York Theatre Workshop]
show is masterfully directed by Elyse Singer, who has managed
keep McCord the actor out of the way of McCord the writer and vice
-- Greenpoint Gazette, (10/1/97)
combination of camp and protofeminism make Sex both wickedly fun
eminently fascinating." -- Time Out New York (7/24/97)
of Sisters & One BIG Brother by Deborah Swisher
solo performance...Swisher is a performance artist with a stage
so engaging you want to follow her anywhere she's inclined to take you,
acting skills so well defined she makes each moment alive and
and a narrative style so disarmingly honest that you won't soon forget
either the tale she has to tell nor its larger implications...One quick
scene follows another, beautifully orchestrated by Elyse Singer...Sisters
[is] not only an extraordinary personal odyssey but a smart and
parable for our time" -- San Francisco Examiner (3/13/99)
in the Void (alt.fan.c-love) by Elyse Singer & Carolyn
Elyse Singer guides Swisher through a crisp, beautifully designed
-- Oakland Tribune (3/17/99)
complex, compassionate, funny and ultimately poignant play" -- SF
since the Dead died...it's been hard to make the '60s fresh, but the
directing, creative set design and superb writing in Hundreds of
is enough to make you say 'Groovy!'" -- San Francisco Bay Guardian
one-person show... extraordinary." -- Village Voice
piece as a whole, directed by Elyse Singer, was terrific. Words
and images kept trading places. The technological world was given flesh
and blood without losing its aura of science-fiction spookiness." --
Jefferson, New York Times 5/17/95 For full review, click here.
American fascination with the trope of the tragic torch singer gets a
and harrowing workout in Love in the Void" -- John Istel, Village Voice
[Carolyn] Baeumler and Elyse Singer have slyly located their Courtney
in a Richard foreman-esque existential hell...Baeumler, as Love might
fakes it so real she is beyond fake." -- James Hannaham, Village Voice
took a small theater piece based on the Internet posts of Hole's
Love to evoke the essentially psychological nature of
Baeumler's] performance is impresive both in its physical and emotional
aggressiveness and its aesthetic restraint....she and director Elyse
are able, perhaps for the first time on the stage, to capture a bit of
the ïNet mystique." --Ed Hewitt, Music Wire 8/23/95
full review, click here
intelligence, biting humor, and weary worldliness, from having
more psychic agony than she should ever have had to in her relatively
existence, is captured by Baeumler, in a powerful portrayal...Most of
play is extremely funny." -- CaRol E. Mariconda, Addicted to Noise
New York Times Arts & Leisure
18, 1995 SUNDAY VIEW/Margo Jefferson
Internet to Wharton's Inner Sanctum
you've committed yourself to the view that theater takes place all
there is no such thing as a vacation. Denied the usual run of openings
in the usual houses on and off Broadway, you visit all sorts of
a theater in a stable or a park, a theater on the edge of a forest or
a back room the size of a studio apartment, theaters that link you to
larger world of nature and history or theaters that seal you off and
as self-contained as Alice's rabbit hole.
in the Void' "Love in the Void (alt.fan.c-love)" took place in a black
hole of a room at Here, a performance space in SoHo. The stage (the
of the room, really) was all white; there were white sheets from
to floor, white projection screens and a big white web. When the lights
went down, you found yourself on the Internet, inside a war of words
wills being fought between a rock star and her greedy, needy
star (played by the actress Carolyn Baeumler) was Courtney Love, and
one of rock's most compelling multiple personalities: a Lolita who
like to have her words with Mr. Nabakov; the widow of a rock hero (her
husband was Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who killed himself in April 1994);
a self-mocking, self-dramatizing rock-beat poet whose talk is wild,
blasphemous, very funny and very smart. (Did her fans think she was
about heroin? Excuse me, that was "heroine.") She made the covers of
and Ms. magazines in the same month, and it wasn't a
piece was a multimedia adaptation of Ms. Love's computer dialogue with
her fans in the six months after Cobain's death. Messages flashed on
off the screens. So did images: film of the real Ms. Love in concert,
herself--stage-diving--into the arms of her fans, and film that showed
Ms. Baeumler putting on her Courtney Love makeup and wig.
Ms. Baeumler held the stage in Courtney Love drag (a baby-doll pink
with black lingerie strategically peeping through), throwing herself in
and out of the web as she listened to the disembodied voices of
inquisitors. We ought to organize a stoning, said one. Admit it,
said another with aggressive encounter-group earnestness, you're too
to trust your talent; you want to be a star, like Cher or Demi Moore.
hurled her answers back into the void--retorts, rants and satiric riffs
on everything from the sweetness and light of the "Free to Be You and
toys Ms. Love grew up with to the maniacally phallic stage acts of her
male rock peers.
Carolyn Baeumler as compelling to watch as the real Courtney Love? No,
she was a hard-working, efficient runner-up. But
the piece as a whole, directed by Elyse Singer, was terrific. Word and
images kept trading places. The technological world was given flesh and
blood without losing its aura of science-fiction spookiness.
And a performer (Ms. Baeumler, but really Ms. Love) got to play with,
against and for her audience, manipulating then interrogating us and
making us change our minds about her every minute.
York Times - Friday, December 24, 1999
A Gentle Nostalgia Trip, by D.J.R. BRUCKNER
York Times - Arts & Leisure - Sunday, February 13, 2000
YORK -- If it helps a writer to know a lot about her subject, Mae West
brought great authority to her first play, "Sex," written and first
in New York in 1926. The writing is not as accomplished as it is in
of her later film scripts, but there are enough characteristic West
to let you know who the author was, and it was good enough to get her
into jail in 1927 as the creator and star of an indecent public
As a publicity stunt the trial was perfect; from then on she was a star
whatever she did.
the text of the play was lost for 70 years. So the show was never
in the city. But now the Hourglass Group has resurrected it in a
at the Gershwin Hotel -- a setting that has the '20s written all over
-- under the direction of Elyse Singer. It is smart, funny and even a
irreverent to West's creaky plot and often corny dialogue. Ms. Singer
one of the three founders of Hourglass, and the other two, Nina Hellman
and Carolyn Baeumler, play key roles. Hourglass itself is devoted to
attention to the work of women, but the production is by no means a
of the playwright.
plot is right out of the pulps. A bright young prostitute in Montreal,
Margy (originally played by West, here by Ms. Baeumler), determined to
get out of her racket and marry well, takes the advice of a British
officer to "follow the fleet." That takes her to Trinidad, where she
the naive scion of a rich family from Greenwich, Conn. He proposes to
and whisks her home to his parents' sprawling mansion.
the plot thickens. One of Margy's Montreal boyfriends had seduced an
society matron -- out slumming in a town where she wouldn't be
-- to follow him one night to Margy's apartment, where he slipped her a
mickey and stole her jewels. Margy and her naval officer friend return
home, find the comatose woman and help her get back to her hotel. Of
the woman turns out to be the mother of Margy's fiance. And Margy's
friend, who truly loves her, turns out to have been invited as a house
guest by the fiance. The matron's seamy escapade might be revealed and
... well, you can write the rest of it.
only difference between us is you can afford to give it away," Margy
to the trembling mother. There are many more needless complications
but since most give rise to comic situations and good lines, what's to
Baeumler is alluring and almost maliciously provocative as Margy, even
if she displays little of the sense of mockery (including occasional
that made West such a natural show-stealer. Ms. Hellman, first as
friend Agnes, a fellow prostitute miserably nostalgic for her rural
past, and then as Marie, a maid in the Greenwich mansion, creates two
characters so distinct it is hard to believe they are played by the
who would make a fitting bride for a scarecrow, all fray and no nerve,
has a voice like failing brakes on a New York subway train, but louder.
Marie, all curves, seduction and impertinent curiosity, purrs in a
accent that gets a laugh about every second word.
Darlow, a Broadway veteran, is hilarious as the society dame on a lark
and even funnier as the frightened mother trying to evade the
T. Ryder Smith, as Margy's naval admirer, Lt Gregg, is virtually a
of early American film depictions of British men; he seems to extend
notion of stiff upper lip to his neck, back, knees and elbows, to
effect. And Andrew Elvis Miller as Margy's clueless young fiance is a
contrivance; he manages to look like a wax mannequin that talks like a
book, with so much sincerity he makes honesty seem quite obscene.
else in the play sounds obscene at all, despite the long strings of
that always marked West's writing and speech.
surrounds the acts of the play with snippets from the 1927 trial of
which is probably a good idea because few in the crowd this company
can have been 10 years old when West died in 1980 and probably have
idea how the legend began. The scene in a hotel cafe in Trinidad gives
the troupe a chance to liven up things with some '20s songs, and sound
tracks by Steven Bernstein's Sex Mob thread modern jazz, intelligently
anchored in that era, through the whole evening.
this show is good comedy, if sometimes at the expense of the script,
for those who can remember Mae West alive, it is also a gentle
West, Still There for Us to Come Up and See",
by VINCENT CANBY
if you can, the spectacle of Mae West playing Norma Desmond in
possibility, reported by Cameron Crowe in his book "Conversations
Wilder," must seem incomprehensible to anyone who treasures Gloria
sinuously macabre performance in the 1950 classic. Was Mae West
kind of joke? Apparently not. But even if Mr. Wilder initially
Boulevard" to be an outright comedy, it is difficult to see how he
have used an actress who possessed such a limited, if vivid,
never know. Mae wasn't interested in the Wilder project because,
she didn't want to play a faded movie star. She knew her fans
believe it. Though she was then in her mid-50's, and no longer in
by the film studios, she felt she was still in the bloom of her
touring with "Diamond Lil" from time to time and discovering new
on the nightclub circuit.
was then someone recognized and/or sought out by such as Cecil
and Sacheverell Sitwell. In his admiring review of her 1949
"Diamond Lil," Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times was moved to
what he called, in an uncharacteristically poetic effusion, "the
fatalism of the entire business," going on to ask, "Is she kidding
West had become an institution, which is dangerous.
it seems that Mr. Wilder's vision of Norma Desmond in the stout form
West was nothing less than prescient. Gloria Swanson may have acted
but Mae West lived the character, far longer and far more
than Mr. Wilder, in the late 1940's, might have imagined.
one of the subsidiary revelations of "Dirty Blonde," the nervy,
entertaining Off Broadway production that contemplates the
of Mae West in a format that mixes comedy and song to suggest that
after all, is very much like a revue. Unfortunately, plays its
today at New York Theater Workshop, but don't despair. There are
it will soon transfer either to Broadway or to another Off
house. It deserves an afterlife.
does the season's second Mae West tribute: the Hourglass Group's
but exuberant Off Off Broadway revival of "Sex," West's 1926
which ends its run tomorrow in the tiny theater at the
is notorious in Broadway history for having been labeled "a public
by the New York police and closed down, even though it had already
41 weeks of sold-out performances without incident. In the trial
Mae was found guilty and sentenced to serve 10 days in the Women's
on Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island. She received great publicity
the trial, but at a certain cost. The publicity also scared New
owners from booking her latest production, "The Drag," a male drag
that, reportedly, was the real target of the attack on "Sex."
wise and moving and seemingly effortless in the way that it evokes
times and manners of Mae West. The work is a seamless
Claudia Shear, the star and author of her own autobiographical
Sideways Through Life," and James Lapine, the playwright, director
theatrical partner of Stephen Sondheim.
Shear and Mr. Lapine together "devised" the show, which was written
Shear, directed by Mr. Lapine, and is being acted by Ms. Shear,
and Bob Stillman.
result is a comic enchantment about two klutzy New Yorkers: Jo
and Charlie (Mr. Chamberlin), whose unusual relationship begins
meet at Mae West's mausoleum in the Cypress Hills Cemetery in
is a seriously dedicated fan, though Charlie has the edge over Jo. A S
on a summer vacation in Los Angeles, he came to know the ancient
her Ravenswood apartment, her home from the early 1930's until her
1980. Briefly, Charlie was accepted into her small, sealed world,
lived her days in perpetual twilight (the sun did terrible things to
attended by hangers-on from the old days.
liked nothing better than to spend hours leafing through Charlie's
scrapbooks; on a special occasion, the queenly bee and her drones
out to eat Chinese, being driven to and from in her Bentley.
swiftly in and out of the lives of Mae (also played by Ms. Shear)
various male attendants (played by Mr. Chamberlin and Mr. Stillman),
contemporary trials of Jo and Charlie. One of Jo's comic/sad
Mae: "She never saw Paris . . . but she could have."
first, Mae's obsession with self and climbing to the top is seen as
when we're told that her mother once advised her, "Don't be selfish,
your career." Only later, as Jo and Charlie gain some understanding
own lives, do they begin to see Mae in perspective. The show's
which shouldn't be described, is as eccentric as it is triumphant,
in a very unusual way.
Hourglass Group's production of "Sex" is something else: a chance to
three-act play more or less as it was presented with music interludes
but also framed with quotations taken from the court proceedings
it. Elyse Singer is the director of the first-rate cast headed by
Baeumler in the Mae West role.
not only starred in "Sex" as Margy LaMont, an upwardly mobile whore
heart of gold, but she also took credit as the playwright. According
Wortis Leider's biography "Becoming Mae West," "Sex" has its origins
the Fleet," a play by J. J. Byrne that Mae bought and rewrote in
with the uncredited Adeline Leitzbach -- Mae never shared
easily. What distinguishes "Sex" from other so-called exploitation
of the time is Margy LaMont's brazenly untroubled attitude toward
always said she was too nervous to read, so it is unlikely that she
contact with George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession." Yet
seem to agree with Shaw that prostitution, while not something to
should be understood as a natural consequence in a society that
women their economic rights and encourages their ignorance.
the introduction to "Three Plays by Mae West," published by
Schlissel, the editor, notes that at the end of "Sex," Margy
neither saved or reborn."
continues, "There is no spiritual redemption . . . The ethical
redrawn -- the wages of sin are reduced from mortal transgression
is what scared Broadway and then delighted the movie audiences in
years of the Great Depression.
Mae went to Hollywood, her good humor and bold assumption of
coupled with her raunchy aphorisms of Wildean balance, transformed
into one of the world's biggest box-office attractions. She was also
Hollywood overhauled the Production Code, the apparatus by which
censored its own material, in this way to combat the new
represented by little Mae.
first three movies, "Night After Night" (1932), "She Done Him
and "I'm No Angel" (1933), are stuffed with the grand
that she never tired of recycling for the rest of her life.
in "I'm No Angel" that she plays a lion tamer who sticks her head
big cat's mouth, prompting an admirer to say significantly, "She's
that cage than she is in bed." This is the same movie in which she
as her dictum about men: "Find 'em, fool 'em, 'n forget 'em."
in 1933, was her variation on what men, especially the sort whom
most, were supposed to say about women.
by the end of the 1930's, Mae's movies were no longer sure-fire
hits. It wasn't only because the Production Code was sanitizing
material. Her range was limited and she was repeating herself. She
gone on forever as the supporting character actress she was in
Night," but she couldn't resist playing the star. When she hogs
a certain monotony creeps into her work; it soon seems as if she
further problem was her age. Mae started late in Hollywood; she had
birthday while shooting "I'm No Angel." Her ample figure was less
in contemporary clothes than in the sort of gowns worn by Lillian
but she couldn't confine her films to tales set in the Gay
West isn't forgotten today, but she is probably best remembered in
ways, in association with other things, like the busty life
World War II servicemen nicknamed for her. She is still recalled
impersonators, some of whom are more bizarre than others.
the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, there was a news photograph of the
wearing the sort of feather boa and cartwheel hat that Mae sported
Done Him Wrong."
films still can be found in video rental shops, of course. Yet I
that the one rented most frequently is "My Little Chickadee." This
comedy-western about a hooker and a card shark is not, strictly
a true Mae West movie, having been stolen by the nimble,
digits of W. C. Fields, her larcenous co-star.
made three films after "My Little Chickadee," but she might as well
then and there. Fields -- no gallant gentleman he (as Mae well
damaged her reputation in subtle ways that, for lethal effect, equaled
wreaked on her pictures by the Production Code.
didn't try to clean up her act; he did something far worse: he
the laid-back, self-mocking good-time girl of "She Done Him Wrong"
No Angel," look not only humorless but mean and spiteful. Though
Flower Belle, sets up the elaborate gag that transforms "My Little
into one of the funniest movies ever made, the way the gag works
demolishes Mae's public persona.
escape Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields), who believes he has conjugal
Belle puts a goat in the bed of their bridal suite, blows out the
and leaves the room in darkness. Twillie enters from the bathroom
into bed, noting, after a decent pause, that Flower Belle seems to
in her caracul coat. "Better take it off, dear," says Twillie with
"you won't feel the good of it when you go out. . . ." When the
out a long "m-a-a-a-a!," Twillie is sent into paroxysms of bliss.
little dear," he says, "is calling for her mama. Such blind
sequence is priceless, but it also has the effect of making Mae
to be frosty and completely out of touch with her co-star, which
Mae was not a team player. But then she knew enough to realize that
she always played, Superhooker, couldn't stand too much realism.
actual joy, passion or even humiliation are evident, the
ridiculous, like Miss Piggy in an otherwise conventional
"Little Women." Mae took top billing in "My Little Chickadee" but
up sandbagged by Fields.
and the revival of "Sex" remind us of the genuine good humor and
that were the basis of Mae West's art, which today survives in
form only in her first three films. All the others are -- to
or lesser degrees -- imitations.
a category of its own is "Sextette," Mae's last movie, which opened in
in 1979 when she was nearing 86. The film is Mae's equivalent to
epic about Salome in which Norma Desmond intends to make her
the screen in "Sunset Boulevard." Mae's film is a sex comedy, based on
she had written some years earlier, about a world-famous movie star
attempts of her former husbands and lovers to prevent her from
her sixth marriage.
embarrassed to admit that, at the time the film opened, I took a
puritanical view of it and of Mae, pointing to the age of the star
the infirmities she shared with the production. You didn't have to be
to find a few laughs at her expense.
seen "Sunset Boulevard" a year ago and, much more recently,
I feel quite differently. There is no desire to sit through
but bully for Mae for having got the screenplay onto the screen,
by Ken Hughes (one of whose earlier epics was "Cromwell"), with a
including Tony Curtis, Ringo Starr, Timothy Dalton and Regis
Mr. Wilder's satiric Gothic romance, the 50-year-old former movie
her screenwriting collaborator-lover and goes mad. In real life,
was equally obsessed with the public personality she had created,
wasn't nuts. She made her movie and, a year after it came out,
melodramatic incident, at the age of 87.
December 5, 1999
STAGE, MAE WEST WAS EVEN RACIER
Emily Wortis Leider
and cartoonists have always gravitated to Mae West because in
she usually seemed to be impersonating herself, exaggerating her
and commenting on her own outrageousness.
IS BACK Show
Business September 8, 1999
she gained recognition in the 1920's and 30's, her highly stylized
and sashaying gait spawned imitation and invited caricature. Still
before Miss Piggy stole her cleavage, long eyelashes and penchant for
Disney used her as the model for the top-heavy Jenny Wren, and Edie
pitched cigars by borrowing her signature slogan (originally spoken
a slightly different word order to Cary Grant in the 1933 film "She
Him Wrong"): "Why don't you come up and see me some time?"
new productions opening in New York are about to remind us that long
her coronation as a movie queen, Mae West had found her identity on the
stage. Her 1926 play "Sex" -- which led to her arrest and jailing -- is
being revived, beginning Thursday, by the Hourglass Group. And on
previews begin of "Dirty Blonde," a play about West by Claudia Shear at
New York Theater Workshop.
she left her native New York for Hollywood to make her first movie, in
1932, Flaming Mae was almost 40 and had been performing before live
since the age of 5. "I'm not a little girl from a little town making
in a big town," she would famously state in Los Angeles. "I'm a big
from a big town making good in a little town." In her baggage, along
the diamonds, velvets and bone corsets that became her trademark in her
show "Diamond Lil," she packed the scripts for several plays she had
for Broadway, and a carefully cultivated notoriety.
of her plays, "Sex," "Pleasure Man" and "Diamond Lil," had been judged
unsuitable by the movies' moral guardians at the Hays Office. A darling
of the tabloids, West was a master of shock tactics: hot clinches,
lyrics, lolling around the stage in her underwear, using drag queens as
actors (she wrote two plays, "The Drag" and "Pleasure Man," about
As a child actress in melodrama she had had plenty of chances to play
innocents but such paragons never appealed to her. Bad-girl roles did.
Reversing the formula that virtue must triumph and sin be punished,
made heroines of the fallen women she usually portrayed. All the famous
and interesting women in history, from Cleopatra to Catherine the
she maintained, had been considered bad. "The only good woman was Betsy
Ross, and all she ever made was a flag."
up as a trouper in plays, revues, burlesque and vaudeville, West
to thrive on adversity. When the lines others wrote for her vaudeville
skits didn't suit, she wrote her own. When a starring vehicle failed to
materialize, she created one for herself. When producers fled, she and
a band of supporters formed their own Morals Production Company.
debt and constant run-ins with both backstage and government censors
only to increase her determination. So long as the result was greater
and more opportunities to perform, she made no objection when critics
at her breaches of decorum. If Variety, in describing her dancing,
her a "rough soubrette who did a 'Turkey' just a bit too coarse," it
she was getting noticed. "Her wriggle cost Mae West her job" ran a 1912
newspaper headline, and although she faced a spell of unemployment,
knew she was making a name for herself.
her play "Sex" was raided by the New York police after a 41-week run
she found herself convicted of obscenity after a much-publicized trial,
she exulted. Packed off to jail, she made the front page of every New
daily. "I expect it will be the making of me," she jauntily informed
as she began her 8-day sentence (reduced for good behavior from 10) in
Welfare Island Women's Workhouse on what is now Roosevelt Island. "I
to employ my time to good advantage . . . getting material for a new
S EX," the first of West's plays to actually get produced, is a crudely
written, frankly vulgar comedy-drama with a gritty underworld edge.
of its power resides in its brazen don't-mess-with-me heroine, the
blond prostitute Margy LaMont (originally played by West), who rises
a Montreal brothel to a rich suitor's Connecticut mansion. She refuses
to be cowed by any man, including her pimp Rocky. "Just because you
a guy and got away with it, don't think I'm afraid of you," she warns
"You know if I start talking I can put a rope around that lily white
of yours." Less polished and less articulate than the women West would
play on screen, Margy shares with West's other femme fatale roles an
for cant and hypocrisy.
tough-girl Brooklynese she demolishes the snobbish married socialite
who dabbled in prostitution to add spice to her boring life: "The only
difference between us is that you could afford to give it away." In
for her role as Margy LaMont in "Sex," Carolyn Baeumler has been
Mae West's movie debut as Maudie Triplett in the 1932 "Night After
It was a performance that made George Raft squawk, "She stole
but the camera." Ms. Baeumler said that the Mae West who played Maudie
was "elastic, loose, not so fixed as she became in later pictures."
she has a different energy from anybody else in the film," Ms. Baeumler
added. Fresh from serving as the understudy of both Stella and Blanche
in the recent New York Theater Workshop production of "A Streetcar
Desire," Ms. Baeumler said that in "Sex" she is attempting a kind of
"playing Mae West playing Margy." The play, directed by Elyse Singer,
be staged in the Living Room at the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th Street.
Courtroom dialogue taken from transcripts of the 1927 trial of West and
the other "Sex" defendants will be included, as will several songs from
Mae West movies in addition to the bluesy "Shake That Thing," which was
in the original production at Daly's 63rd Street Theater. Nina Hellman,
who co-founded the Hourglass Group with Ms. Singer and Ms. Baeumler,
be the singer.
in the audience who are still pondering the recent contretemps between
the current Mayor of New York and the Brooklyn Museum may experience a
shock of recognition when they hear the magistrate declaring that "Sex"
deserved censoring because it "was calculated to excite in the
impure imagination" and assuring the courtroom that "New York is the
moral city in the universe." In her three-person play "Dirty Blonde,"
opens on Jan. 13, Ms. Shear takes the role of West but, she said,
impersonates nor re-enacts her life story. Instead, she said, she will
highlight major public and private moments in West's career,
some of the men West worked with (Bob Stillman will play her hapless
dance partner and husband, Frank Wallace), reprising some of West's
and dances ("I definitely do a wiggle"), and finding points of
with her fellow Brooklynite.
an opening scene in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, where West was
buried in 1980, Ms. Shear will play a West devotee who at her idol's
meets an equally obsessed fan and cross-dresser portrayed by Kevin
As they pursue their Mae West quest, the connection between the two
deepen, Ms. Shear said. It was the writer and director James Lapine who
first approached Ms. Shear with the idea of creating a script inspired
by the diva who once posed as the Statue of Libido. Mr. Lapine said he
had thought of Ms. Shear "because of the Brooklyn connection and
she is out of the norm." He is directing the play. Asked what most drew
her to West, Ms. Shear said she puts moxie at the top of her list. She
was also impressed by West's refusal ever to play victim (West balked
Paramount executives tried to switch the title of her celebrated movie
to "He Done Her Wrong"). "Mae West was never devastated by a man," Ms.
Shear emphasized. "She never looked in a mirror and said, 'I'm fat.'
of Ms. Shear's much praised 1993 autobiographical play, "Blown Sideways
Through Life," may recall that Ms. Shear, who is the same height (an
5 feet) as Mae West, once tipped the scales at more than 200 pounds and
called herself "the human sofa." In the 1920's, as in the 90's, the
body of choice was slim-hipped, straight-lined, leggy and lean. That
hardly Mae West's body type, but in her long-running Broadway hit
Lil" she found a way to bypass flapper chic by reviving 1890's-style
and costuming herself like Lillian Russell, with an emphasis on long
big hats, cinched waists and billowing curves. "She found out who she
when she dressed as her mother," Ms. Shear said. Ms. Shear thinks West
missed out on several things "that really matter." "She never saw
Ms. Shear said. "And she never really loved."
is coming back to the city, but this particular version isn't on HBO.
West's play Sex is about to open in New York, nearly 75
after it first caused a stir and led to her arrest here.
West: The Woman Who Fashioned Herself a Big Star Newsday,
January 7, 2000
wrote and in 1926 starred in Sex, a play which ran for nearly a
year in New York. But Sex did more than that: West was charged
staging an obscene production and hauled off to jail. Now, 73 years
is being staged again in New York City.
being presented by the appropriately named Hourglass Group, starring
Baeumler in the role created by West, and featuring Nina Hellman. And Sex,
directed by Elyse Singer, is opening in a venue that in some ways may
particularly appropriate: a hotel.
show is slated to open on December 9 in the Living Room, in the
Hotel at 7 East 27th Street. But Singer, who got the rights to do the
downplayed the idea that West was an actress who also happened to write
a play or two. Instead, she said West was a playwright and screenwriter
as well as a movie star all along.
West wrote six plays that were produced on Broadway, as well as most of
the screenplays for her films," Singer says. "Sex was her first
play itself turned into a controversial production and ended up landing
her on Welfare Island, where she served eight days in jail. Singer says
West was charged and arrested for staging an obscene production, but
the motive was to stop her second show from opening. The Drag,
second script, features a transvestite ball.
says she was able to get the rights to do the play. But it took some
When she first saw the script it was unpublished, although it has been
since. "In 1997, Hourglass began negotiating for the rights to produce
the play independently," she says.
production was developed through New Georges and the New York Theatre
It follows the story of a prostitute and what Singer calls her "search
for a better life." The story takes Margy LaMont from a Montreal
to a nightclub in Trinidad and a mansion in Connecticut.
the way LaMont meets gangsters, molls, sailors and society. But Singer
adds that the play also includes the fast-paced, wisecracking dialogue
for which West became so famous. "The language ricochets like
play, in addition to re-introducing West's work, also reminds audiences
that Mae West, as well as an actress, was a comic writer. And the
in this production have worked together before. Singer directed
in another play about a high-powered performer, Love in the Void,
based on Courtney Love's Internet posts. Baeumler is now the understudy
for Blanche and Stella in New York Theatre Workshop's production of A
Streetcar Named Desire.
as well as an actress, is a member of the band Cake Like, which
released its third album Goodbye, So What. And Singer points out that
three women have something else in common with Mae West.
all 32 years old," Singer says, "the same age that West was when she
produced and starred in Sex on Broadway." If Sex proves to be
brazen as this confession, we're in for a real treat.
indelible icon of another era is the subject of a new play in New York.
And her own raunchy 1926 play is being revived.
BLAKE GREEN, Newsday
YORK--Few quips have achieved the immortality of Mae West's sultry
"Come up and see me sometime." She issued it first on the New York
in 1928 in "Diamond Lil," and then a slight variation on the screen in
"She Done Him Wrong," where its eternity was cemented by the guy on the
receiving end: a virtually unknown actor named Cary Grant.
that same 1933 movie came two other memorable West-isms: Lady Lou, when
asked, "Haven't you ever met a man who can make you happy?," retorted:
"Sure. Lots of times." And, as reassurance to another shady lady, she
"When women go wrong, men go right after them."
wisecracks are the actress' most obvious legacy. When you delve into
it's amazing how many familiar witty, on-the-mark irreverences and
double-entendres can be traced straight back to the blond,
actress who wrote much of her own material and delivered it in her
beyond the racy quotes that sprang, tough-dame style from the side of
mouth, West's was a story of survival, persistence, independence and
self-esteem. In her life--which ended in 1980, at 87--she became both
icon and a caricature.
to the miracle of celluloid, we are able to see the brassy and brazen
vamp of the Hollywood films West made before the censors homogenized
act--the classic "My Little Chickadee," with W.C. Fields (1940), comes
around regularly on television; many of the other films are available
video--and the campy creature who, at 85, insisted on playing a young
girl, a pathetic parody of her youthful self, in that 1978 bomb
before there was a Hollywood Mae West, there was the stage sensation
came up through the ranks of burlesque, vaudeville and revues (West
performing when she was 6). And it's that West who is back with us for
a visit, via surrogates, in two current off-Broadway productions.
Blonde," an original play about West and her legacy, written by and
her fellow 5-foot-2 Brooklynite Claudia Shear, opens Monday in the East
Village at the New York Theatre Workshop. Shear plays herself on the
of West (including making a visit to the Brooklyn mausoleum where the
is entombed) and the living sex symbol at various stages in her
yet oddly staid, life.
"Sex," West's own raunchy 1926 play that made her both famous and
(and landed her in jail), is being given what's believed to be its
New York revival by the appropriately named Hourglass Group in the
district's Gershwin Hotel.
LaMont, the free-spirited hooker West wrote for herself, is played by
Bauemler, and the production, with a cast of 10 playing two dozen
has incorporated transcripts from the 1927 court trial for indecency,
well as West's controversial use of drag queens in her casts.
set for "Sex," by George Xenos, plays off Salvador Dali's famous "Face
of Mae West Which Mae Be Used as an Apartment," in which her lips are a
sofa and her eyes set within picture frames.
to add to the West lore, the paperback edition of "Becoming Mae West,"
Emily Wortis Leider's 1997 biography of the actress' early years, is
to be released in paperback by Da Capo Press.
was James Lapine's idea to do a piece on Mae West, says Shear, an
buff who leapt at his proposal and spent a year and a half researching
and developing the show, becoming, along the way, a huge fan not only
West's talent but also of her obsessiveness. "I don't think I've ever
a day in my life in which I was as focused as Mae West," Shear says
* * *
direction of "Dirty Blonde," which also stars Kevin Chamberlin and Bob
Stillman, began with his suggestion of an ending for the show: "Mae
kissing Mae West." One of these Maes is a guy--in keeping with West's
popularity as a subject for female impersonators.
interesting to me how a person's persona lasts through time," says
who admits, "I had thought of her in a kitschy, cliche way--like a
I had no idea she was a pretty amazing lady."
is a word often used when people talk about West's highly
life. Arriving in Hollywood when she was 39, she famously announced
away, "I'm not a little girl from a little town making good in a big
I'm a big girl from a big town making good in a little town."
proved it: Only a few years later, she was the highest-paid woman in
commanding $300,000 a picture. "She Done Him Wrong," the movie West
"was the 'Star Wars' of its day," Shear says. "They had round-the-clock
Hourglass Group chose "Sex," says Elyse Singer, its director, "because
the piece has the feeling of giving birth to a star--the creation of an
icon"--importantly, the self-creation. One of the founders of a company
that operates on a shoestring, she says it was also pleasing to
that West had her own difficulties financing her first play.
once West created her image, she was unwilling to change it, deluding
that she had defied the passage of time. "She was not someone who would
take smaller, character roles to work," says Shear, who becomes a
gargoyled West in "Dirty Blonde." "That's the part that makes you hurt
for her, but there's something about her that makes me think,
This is about the power of Mae West, and I say, 'Mae, good for you.' "