When she was released from jail for transgressing indecency laws with her 1926 play Sex, Mae West told reporters that her play about a street-smart prostitute's adventures in love was "a work of art." This was a bit of a stretch. West based her slapstick comedy on Following the Fleet, a melodrama by New Jersey author Jack Byrne. West scholar Lillian Schlissel dubs Byrne's creation "a third-rate sex play set in a Montreal brothel" in her introduction to a collection of West's plays. Schlissel's backhanded description of Byrne's work could be applied to Sex as well. The plot, concerning hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Margy LaMont's journey from the gutter to the stars via a Montreal flophouse, a Trinidad nightclub, and the mansion of a wealthy Connecticut family, is flimsy and farcical.
But the true creativity of Sex isn't in the aesthetics of its composition. Like other artists whose works have challenged censorship standards over the years, from D.H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover to Kenneth Tynan's burlesque stage review Oh! Calcutta! to Madonna's photographic book Sex, the genius of West's theatrical effort lies in its notoriety. By the time West, who wrote the role of LaMont for herself and starred in the original production, emerged from her short stay in prison, she was well on her way to fame. Not only that. West's trailblazing portrayal of a prostitute who finds happiness and fortune instead of her moral comeuppance — which up to that point had been the de facto ending to plays about loose women — helped to break down contemporary pruderies, paving the way for more diverse characters on the legit Broadway stage. As West later told reporters, "Considering what Sex got me, a few days in the pen 'n' a $500 fine ain't too bad a deal."
What makes director Tom Ross' revival of West's comedy at Aurora Theatre so captivating is its sense of fun and its ability to connect what Sex meant to West and her audiences with what the play means to us today. This is no small feat when you consider the essential badness of the play. Making a joke of the vaudeville shtick might seem the easiest route for a director. But instead of mocking West's artistic sensibility, Ross and his collaborators embrace every hokey one-liner as if she had written it just last week for The Daily Show, and go at each sentimental musical number like they mean it. The result makes for not only an entertaining night out at the theater, but also a provocative one.
Ross' production might appear garish on the surface, but it's subtle within. Set designer Greg Dunham goes all out for chintz, flinging together an upright piano and a few sparse bits of bric-a-brac furniture in front of a tacky revolving backdrop, depicting an amateurishly painted street corner scene on one side and the inside wall of a parlor on the other. It suggests a hastily put together touring vaudeville show. But there's more to the scenic design than meets the eye. The remarkable similarity between the look of the opening scene, set in a low-class Montreal brothel, and the final scene, set in an upper-class Connecticut home, underscores the main moral point that West makes in her play: that circumstances rather than social position dictate a person's actions, and a society lady is just as capable of committing sin as a prostitute is of being virtuous.
The performances similarly balance flamboyance with depth. Aurora's expert cast doesn't shy away from portraying West's vaudeville types in a bravura style. Kristin Stokes plays her sad little prostitute, Agnes, like a Hollywood Golden Era ingénue with her Tweety Pie voice and wide, candid eyes. Steve Irish's British naval officer Lieutenant Gregg is the sort of handsome, beefy hero who would have made women swoon back in the day. The acting may be hammy by modern standards, but without exception, the actions and words come from a place of affection and are delivered with precision and control.
This approach is most obviously encapsulated in Delia MacDougall's portrayal of LaMont. MacDougall unapologetically channels West's persona throughout: Her performance is as much an homage to the American stage and screen's greatest sexual liberator as it is a portrait of an irresistible blonde hussy. MacDougall has all of West's legendary mannerisms down, from her loaded vocal purr and Jell-O swagger to her trademark "teapot" posture, with one arm crooked at the elbow, hand on hip, and the other swinging in the air freely. Yet the performance never feels like a caricature. Whether repelling the attentions of unwanted suitors, seducing millionaires, dispensing sensible advice to homesick young hookers, or resuscitating drugged society dames, MacDougall brings a range to her actions and reactions that goes beyond the clichés that have become associated with West's screen persona over the years.
Sex is a good-time show. We can't help but laugh at the jokes. We even find ourselves won over each time the actors break into sweet old songs against musical director Billy Philadelphia's piano accompaniment about such lavender-tinged subjects as sailors' sweethearts, belles of the sea, and paradise waiting for people in their dreams. But even the most entertaining of scenes, such as when two male actors in full drag confront MacDougall about the whereabouts of their philandering boyfriends, hint at something more serious. The presence of the cross-dressers isn't simply another way of celebrating West's achievements: As the creator of the gay plays The Drag and The Pleasure Man, she was responsible for breaking taboos surrounding the depiction of homosexuals onstage. Just as the inclusion of newly written scenes at the beginning and end of the production narrate the story behind the play and provide some context for its legacy, the cross-dressing element also makes West's seemingly anachronistic exercise in theatrical titillation resonate sharply with our own times.
If the likes of Kiki & Herb can sell out Carnegie Hall and the Geary Theater today, it's partly thanks to West's groundbreaking efforts some 80 years ago. Yet as far as we've come on the sexual enlightenment front, Aurora's revival of Sex throws the recent resurgence of anti-smut campaigns and censorship laws into sharp relief. Sex was revolutionary when it first appeared because it used comedy to cut sin down to size, reducing it, as Schlissel points out, "from mortal transgression to misdemeanor." If only those who waste so much of the public's time and money trying to stamp out the word "fuck" from the radio and prevent the tiniest exposure of pop stars' nipples on TV had inherited West's sense of humor.
Then again, there's nothing like a bit of notoriety to draw attention to a cause and get a budding starlet noticed. West truly knew what she was talking about when she famously said, "When I'm good I'm very good, but when I'm bad I'm better."