Dirty Blonde Comforts Neurotics; T.S. Eliot’s Not-So-Nice Play

A concerned letter has flooded into my mailbox. “I read you every week and I love you,” it goes. “But why didn’t you adore Dirty Blonde , and what’s so terrible about cross-dressing anyway? Yours Sincerely, Raymond Boot, Brooklyn.”

I had mentioned last week that we must all give ourselves a well-deserved rest from worrying about the metaphorical significance of transvestite impersonators of Mae West in Dirty Blonde , and concern ourselves with much bigger things, such as the metaphorical significance of cricket in Tom Stoppard. I meant no harm. Unfortunately, I think that Claudia Shear’s cozy little drama about the redemptive power of star worship in the shape and form of Mae West is the most overrated play of the season. That it should be drooled over elsewhere is unfortunate, though good news for Ms. Shear, who also stars in the play. But my view of the piece has nothing to do with cross-dressing, of which I’ve always been quite fond. As Mae West herself used to say, “I like restraint, if it doesn’t go too far.”

I was raised in a good family in England where cross-dressing has always been considered acceptable at the cocktail hour. It takes me back to the time I came home from school one day to be met by my mother with a nice hot cup of tea. “You look nice, Mum,” I said cheerfully, as young lads do. But it wasn’t my mum. It was my dad. He was dressed as Audrey Hepburn. Well, as you may imagine, it was a little bit of a shock at first, particularly as he was crooning “Moon River.” “Oh, cat, cat!” he called out just like Audrey in the Breakfast at Tiffany’s rain sequence. “Where are you cat?” We didn’t even have a cat. Anyway, Daddy soon retired from the bank when he ran off into the sunset with the local bricklayer. He was following his dream. But no one held the Audrey Hepburn business against him, I assure you.

Who wouldn’t want to be Audrey Hepburn? Well, there you are. We agree. On the other hand, who-male or female-would wish to spend their days and nights as Mae West? I can tell you. Fat people. Fat neurotic people want to be Mae West. No disrespect to large persons everywhere, and no offense in particular to Ms. Shear and the charming Kevin Chamberlin in Dirty Blonde . It is, of course, their characters, Jo and Charlie, who are big, lonely dumplings with a Mae West fetish, though Ms. Shear is known to be a regular visitor to Mae West’s grave in Queens. Has she nothing better to do?

As a play, Dirty Blonde is partly a conventional Mae West biography in tune with celebrity worship, partly the kind of mildly daring show that was popular in the Village a generation ago. A good deal of its wit is actually borrowed from the beautiful, suggestive ironies made famous by Mae West herself. As an actress, Ms. Shear can be coarse. Her specialty is more in the league of a stand-up comedy routine about neurotic loudmouthed rejection. Her character in Dirty Blonde is a troubled, loudly failed actress in desperate need of a man. She also happens to visit Mae West’s grave in Queens. Mr. Chamberlin’s character is a troubled, neurotically shy film archivist who’s in desperate need of anyone. His guilty secret is Mae West, and he’s probably gay (but he isn’t). For our two lonely hearts to identify with the exaggerated camp of Mae West is therefore meant to be seen as a liberating act of “courage,” a “shocking” statement of social defiance, a transforming act of “freedom.” They’ll probably be played in the film version by Madonna and Rupert Everett.

In Eric Bogosian’s spirited new solo piece, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee at the Jane Street Theater downtown, he takes off on a welcome politically incorrect rant about the sentimental folk wisdom we revere in idiots. Mr. Bogosian is referring to the simpleton heroes of Sling Blade , Rain Man and Forrest Gump . “We’re looking up at the mentally handicapped,” he protests. “What does that say about us?”

In Dirty Blonde , we’re expected to be inspired by two lost souls who find happiness together by pretending to be Mae West. What does that say about them? If it’s uplifting, what does that say about us?

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s new staging of T.S. Eliot’s 1939 The Family Reunion at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was a remarkable event, like meeting some maligned distant relative for the first time. I was brought up on the generation of English dramatists led by John Osborne who sent verse playwrights like Eliot, Christopher Fry and Ronald Duncan into the wilderness along with their middle-class drawing rooms. Eliot wanted audiences to listen to poetry spoken by “people dressed like ourselves, living in houses and apartments like ours …” But not everyone lived like Eliot. So his dowager duchesses were beheaded by the social realism of upstart working class playwrights, and British theater was never the same. Until, that is, the return to fashion of Eliot, as other banished contemporaries such as Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan limped home to new glory.

But The Family Reunion , and its experimental mix of a traditional drawing-room saga with Aeschylus’ The Oresteia , failed to ignite at its 1930′s premiere. It took almost another 40 years for it to be successfully revived in England; its last major production in New York was in l958 with Lillian Gish. Then again, its reputation hasn’t been helped by its severest, brightest critic, T.S. Eliot himself. He famously demolished his own play in a 1950 essay, finding its tortured, lordly hero pursued by Furies, “an insufferable prig,” and the link with Greek tragedy pretentiously clumsy. If Eliot didn’t care for The Family Reunion , why should we?

And the answer to that tricky question is found in the old adage: Never listen to what an artist says about his own work, only to what he creates. Eliot’s disenchantment with his poorly received verse plays was palpable, and theater itself is punishing in its changes of fashion. But he was too great a poet to have failed so disastrously. What was he really up to in The Family Reunion ? My strongest hunch is that Eliot, the modernist, was actually in search of a new form of theater.

The sense of revelation that Adrian Noble’s spare, wintry production leaves me with is that the play doesn’t belong to the drawing-room genre at all. Mr. Noble’s masterstroke is to demolish the middlebrow legacy of the drawing room itself and set the play in a universal no-man’s land. It is now excitingly clear that Eliot was simply using the conventions of his day, and even satirizing them. His matriarchal duchess and the silly chinless sons, the loyal butler, the jolly policeman, the sensible family doctor, the bourgeois innocuous chatter in tweed skirts and gardening gloves, are all as outwardly stereotypical as Pinero. “That didn’t sound like an evening of myth and theology at all-just a nice play,” John Osborne wrote about Eliot, critiquing another comfortable evening at the theater akin to snoozing by the fireside.

But The Family Reunion isn’t a nice play. The hero has murdered his wife, or imagines he has, as his father tried to kill his mother before he was born. “You do not know / The noxious smell untraceable in the drains, / Inaccessible to the plumbers, that has its hour / of the night; you do not know / The unspoken voice of sorrow …” The play is clearly dark and disquieting, a metaphysical poem about lives haunted by demons and murderously neurotic despair as time passes superficially in pleasant, mundane routine. It is dense and messy, to be sure, and the gears of the modern and the mythic grind. But T.S. Eliot’s early experiment was in search of a new theater of magic realism and poetry, which we can only imagine and almost never hear.