Revival of Mae West play puts past and present into perspective
By MICHAEL SMITH World Scene Writer, 6/7/2003
"Sex" is very good -- and when it's a bit naughty, it's even better.
When I say naughty, I mean smart, witty and engaging, but never profane, despite the title and the fact that Mae West was jailed on obscenity charges for her 1926 play about an independent woman.
It would be easy to describe the play as being about a prostitute who wants to better her lot in life, but that wouldn't paint a full picture of Margy LaMont in Theater Club's superb rendition, which opened Thursday at the Nightingale Theater.
As a famed sexpot and comedienne, West proves to be a deft playwright, and more than a bit ahead of her time. It's important to realize that the paddy wagon's appearance at her New York play so long ago -- after hundreds of sold-out performances -- wasn't due to the salacious nature of the show's content but because West refused to condemn the morals of the lead character.
Without question, if West were alive to see the bathroom humor, lewd behavior and bad taste that's passing for comedy on a large scale in entertainment today, she'd be bored with the amateurish efforts. Meanwhile, her show would score about a PG rating.
Instead, the play that launched West's fame presents a woman who never sees herself as a victim. Rather, she's a dame who won't compromise being true to herself. She'll sell herself, but don't sell her short.
" The only difference between us is that you could afford to give it away," the streetwise Margy tells a hypocritical socialite wife who condemns her.
Director John Cruncleton has decided to present "Sex" in a manner that plays up the zaniness, rapid-fire dialogue and melodramatic elements of '20s entertainment. It's a wonderfully assured decision that his cast buys into with great effect.
The very essence of this success can be seen in Sara Wilemon. A fantastic newcomer to the Tulsa stage, her Margy is a red-headed dynamo with a deep, smoky voice. She's a tower of power, a cool, confident heroine among all the melodrama, and Wilemon makes the role her own, rather than attempting the impossible: to impersonate West.
The three-act tale begins in Montreal, where Margy is a prostitute living and working in the red-light district. She's a realist, but she's also a dreamer: It's a living, and she's had her fun, but she's ready to move on, despite her pimp's warning that she'll "never be anything but what you are."
The first-act exposition is a smooth bit of foreplay before we find Margy following the fleet from port to port, man to man, and landing for a while in Trini dad. She's entertaining the boys, doing a bit of song and dance, and then her wisecracking cools off when she finds a "clean, wonderful love" with a wealthy young man who asks her to marry him.
The third act moves the audience to the suitor's Connecticut estate to meet the parents, and all hell breaks loose in this serene society setting.
The acting in this show is a joy, with several standouts, including Rich Bentz' pugnacious pimp, Rocky; Kevin Roden's Montreal police officer, a dirty cop who's just as honest about his impropriety as Margy is; and George Romero, an absolute comic hoot as Senor Condez, the nightclub host and vaudevillian.
The perfect complement to Wilemon is John Akey's splendid portrayal of Lt. Gregg, an English naval officer who's lovingly devoted to Margy but a bit of a sad character at the same time.
Cruncleton gets a strong assist from many people in this solid production, including a very effective as well as aesthetically pleasing set design, beautiful costuming and period background music that's just right.
There's barely a quibble about this Theater Club production, outside of a downstage mirror that blocks some audience members' views and a bit of stuffiness inside the theater, even on the most temperate of evenings.
No, in the case of this show, "Sex" is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.
Theater Club's production of "Sex" continues with 8 p.m. performances Saturday, Thursday-Friday and June 14 at the Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. Fourth St. Tickets are $8 and may be reserved by calling 857-9154 or by e-mail at email@example.com.