Aurora Theatre Company’s Bay Area premiere of Sex by legendary screen vamp Mae West is much belated. Considering the chain of events when the play premiered on Broadway in 1926, however, that’s not surprising. The titillating title and saucy subject matter ensured packed houses despite almost universally scathing reviews, which are excerpted in an onstage historical prologue added onto the Aurora production. These same features got the show shut down by the cops, the cast arrested, and West herself convicted on obscenity charges.
Despite the fact that West wrote most of her movies, few today know her as a playwright. But she wrote a number of plays, and not all of them were an acting vehicle for herself. Her next play, 1927’s The Drag, managed to be even more controversial by focusing on gay men, and was banned on Broadway.
As a play, Sex is more than a little clunky, with pulp-novel dialogue, dozens of characters that appear only once or twice, most of them two- or one-dimensional, and all the plot predictability of melodrama. Fortunately, director Tom Ross doesn’t try to make the play something it’s not but works with the material’s larger-than-life aspects with just enough camp to make it work — from new musical numbers to exaggerated accents and characters in drag.
The plot has some elements of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, which had hit Broadway five years before Sex but hadn’t yet become a Garbo picture. At the same time, the basic setup feels almost as old as the profession it concerns: a working girl meets a nice boy who falls in love with her, but she doesn’t want to break his heart by telling him about her shady past. But West tosses enough snappy one-liners, double entendres, and curveball plot twists to keep it entertaining even when you can see where it’s going a mile away.
West reserved the snappiest lines for herself, here impersonated by Delia MacDougall in the lead role of Margy LaMont. All dolled up like West in some great getups by costumer Cassandra Carpenter, MacDougall does the whole routine: the hand on her hip, the knowing smirk, the frequent adjusting of her curls.
Mimicking a popular entertainer while playing a role is a tricky proposition, but there are times when it’s necessary in order to sell the material. It’s hard if not impossible to do a Marx Brothers play without imitating the Marx Brothers, for example. It’s not strictly necessary in this case to play Mae West playing the role she wrote for herself for her Broadway debut at 33, after 20 years in vaudeville. You just know those lines were meant to be delivered in her signature sultry voice, however, and the way Ross has chosen to stage the play makes it even more about West than it was before.
MacDougall does the Mae West impression well, but there are only so many times you can see her bob her hair before it gets distracting. She’s much more engaging in dramatically demanding moments — when she’s tormented or enraged and the shtick falls away a bit — than when she’s at ease making innuendos.
The original play has a bunch of popular songs of the day sung back-to-back at a bar in Trinidad, but the Aurora production rounds them out by adding a couple of West favorites and three new songs written by music director Billy Philadelphia, who appears in the show as a piano player. It’s not hard to spot the new songs by the plot relevance of the lyrics, and two of them, “Under the Red Light” and “Goin’ Down Under,” are snappy but forgettable. The first of them opens the show with such an onslaught of slapdash silliness that it looks as if it’s going to be a long evening. The third, “At the Cafe Port au Prince,” is a highlight for its catchy Latin rhythm but mostly for its over-the-top delivery by Danny Wolohan as the outrageously upbeat club owner.
Most of the actors play multiple roles, and Wolohan is less interesting as generic gangster Rocky the killer pimp. Robert Brewer is delightfully bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as suitor Jimmy, and Steve Irish is terribly touching as the somewhat dissipated but steadfast, very British navy Lieutenant Gregg, and also quite funny as Jimmy’s stodgy father. Maureen McVerry is delightful as clucking society dame Clara. Kristin Stokes makes a fine squeaky ditz and an amusing if unconvincing French maid, and Craig Jessup plays a dizzying variety of policemen and lowlifes.
It gets a little preachy at times, such as Margy’s minor jeremiad at Clara: “The only difference between us is you could afford to give it away.” The point about not trying to be something you’re not, often repeated in the play, is well taken. What makes Sex work so well is the way Aurora embraces it in all its excesses.