THE BASICS: Sensational drama by Mae West, about the rise of a sultry, smart, strong-willed madam. The program tells us that it has not been revived since being shuttered by the New York Police “for corrupting the morals of youth”, in 1926. Peter Hinton-Davis directs a cast of twelve, with a number of the actors playing multiple roles. SEX is yet another offering at this season’s Shaw Festival, playing at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, immediately opposite the large Festival Theatre, on selected dates through October 13th. With its single intermission, SEX runs about 2 ½ hours.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The play takes place in a sleazy apartment in Montreal’s red light district, at a café and hotel in Trinidad, and finally in a stately residence outside NYC. Present day (1926). Up-and-coming madam Margy LaMont shakes off her scumbag manager Rocky Waldron, and makes some serious money on her own, by “following the fleet”. In Trinidad, she meets Jimmy Stanton, the naïve, privileged, just-out-of-college son of a wealthy NYC trader/businessman. Jimmy falls hard for Margy, and she is enchanted. Can she at length get out of the business, and find happiness in polite society with the callow Jimmy?
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: Walking into the Jackie Maxwell Theatre, and seeing their small rectangular stage filled by towering piles of old (period) suitcases, my immediate impression was “what the …?” These suitcases return, in differing numbers and configurations, throughout the course of the evening. My one overwhelming memory now is that of actors carting suitcases on and off stage. I’ve now had sufficient time to mull it over, and I’ve got to say that I still don’t get it. Yes, there are characters in SEX, including the protagonist Margy, who travel from place to place. But this is hardly the point of the show! Symbolism? Maybe, but to my mind, it’s just one of a number of weird trappings that the creative staff have larded onto what is, in fact, a pretty conventional melodrama.
Problems abound. With the possible exception of the Stanton residence, there are never enough set pieces to give us a good sense of place. The production has a loose, murky quality, especially in the first act. The different characters played by a several cast members are not well differentiated, which leads to confusion. Diana Donnelly shines as Margy, the role Mae West wrote for herself, and even gets a chance to show off her vocal chops in a solo: “Who’s Sorry Now?” Other musical moments, clearly interpolated, are not nearly as felicitous. One wonders how much music (if any) was in the 1926 original.
André Sills provides good support as Lt. Gregg, a world-wise, strong-and-steady British naval officer who gets displaced from Margy’s affections by the stripling Jimmy. The latter is played by Julia Course, in a bold piece of cross gender casting that I would describe as an interesting failure. Far better is Jonathan Tan as the wan, troubled Agnes, one of Margy’s “girls”. Several of the actors in SEX play in drag, perhaps a nod to playwright West’s interest in the subject. Her next play, which never got to Broadway, was in fact titled THE DRAG. But is there really a point to be made, or is it just “daring”?
Playwright West was not shy about exposing the grim underbelly of the sex trade, and gives us a distinctly feminine perspective while doing it. Moreover, we are regularly treated to the sort of flip, risqué remarks that would serve her so well a few years hence, in the movies.
Trying to separate it from the problematic Shaw production, I would say that the play SEX is pretty strong. A bold (at least for 1926) zippy melodrama with naturalistic leanings, and a number of good one-liners. It’s easy to see why it played to packed houses for nearly a year. While I applaud the Shaw for rediscovering and staging SEX, I must simultaneous fault the creative team for their very substantial, misguided efforts to make it more controversial, “arty”. Did they trust the piece? I suspect not. SEX deserved a nice, faithful rendering on a little proscenium stage, like the Royal George. Sadly, that did not happen. In its present incarnation, I can give it no more than
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!