“Looking for Sex?” “Why yes!” Such was the dialogue–ah!–with a playfully cute man at the Hollywood box office on Theatre Row as he asked me, and I replied, with a fun-loving and carefree bawdiness that felt fresh and surreptitious, as it must’ve felt when Mae West’s play, “Sex,” first played in 1926.
Movie icon Mae West wrote the play, the story of an entrepreneur sex worker named Margy LaMont in Montreal. “I hate this town and everything in it,” Margy often declares in the play. In the play, a society matron frames Margy for a crime she didn’t commit, and Margy goes on the lam to New York, the Caribbean, and Australia. Suitors follow her as devotedly as rumors and slander. The play and Mae West’s life direct us to move! Enjoy this life, go find out what this world–and your body, and other bodies–have to offer!
The tremendous talent infuses the room of the small theater. The acting is terrific, sometimes superb. Joy fills the room like the voices that fill it as each actor contributes the lines and songs with practiced finesse and power! The singing, the gestures, the mise-en-scene–each and every performer makes full use of space and line and meaning. So, too, does the theatre itself. Showtime is run with a friendly discipline as the audience is directed and ushered. A simplicity of set design is splendid and resourceful–a piano, a turntable, a phone, a fainting couch, a bureau. A pair of empty shoes. The wretched friend, the glittering gowns, the man in uniform! Colorful glitter–the brocade, a throw, the shawl! Distant lands made close. The curtains’ colors change to signal new passages of the play–blue! gold! red! white!–shed like stuck identities! Music sounds each time a character crosses the door’s threshold! Hoorah! And the actors move the furniture themselves!
This play made me happy. I think it’s about sex, but it’s also about refusal and freedom.
“Now that you’re off the pedestal, you can see,” says Margy to the society matron.
A splash offstage, and we learn that it’s “just one of the wretches who follows the fleet,”–matter-of-fact words that suddenly sobered the room in a glorious groupie’s devotion drowning. But West’s name was given to life jackets and combat tanks during WWII.
A hard worker known to avoid drugs, alcohol, and large crowds, West’s work ethic made her productive.
“I only knew two rules of playwriting,” she said as quoted in her NY Times obituary. ”Write about what you know, and make it entertaining. So that’s why I wrote it the way I did, on a subject I was interested in – sex.”
The play was originally produced by West, her mom, and her future manager, the lawyer, James Timony. ”Sex” opened to a small crowd in New London, Connecticut, but when it opened in New York in April 1926 starring West, it played to a full house. The Society for the Suppression of Vice was worried that she and her play would corrupt audiences. In the 41st week of “Sex,” West and 20 other members of the cast were arrested in the theater. She was fined $500 and sentenced to ten days in prison.
”It isn’t what I do, but how I do it,” West’s obituary also quoted. ”It isn’t what I say, but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it.” The idea of a bold strumpet from the Gay Nineties shaped her persona, whose extravagantly textured materials appear as sumptuous as her voluptuous hourglass form: furs, gowns whose tails she used like whips, stiletto heels, and sparkling jewels adorn and attract. Her wit allures; her delivery of the clever lines she wrote emphasizes each syllable, allowing every possible nuance–just as her hands emphasized her body as she, with great intention, stops the show to command the gaze of the audience as she shimmies, shakes, caresses, and communicates.
Many have wondered if West was a man. “I wish I was a girl,” confesses the adoring Lieutenant to Margy in “Sex.” Is West also confessing? In 2015, a man who turned himself into a woman, Caitlyn Jenner, was awarded Woman of the Year by Glamour magazine. That meaning of that witchy word, “glamour,” is as to cast an enchantment. Sexual freedom, along with gender and social equality, would surely be enchanting!
Director Sirena Irwin fell in love with West when she caught an interview with the screen legend.
On the play’s Stagebill, Irwin explained, “A couple of years ago I saw Mae West in an interview from 1976 where when asked by Dick Cavett why she had mirrors on her bedroom ceiling. She replied in her signature Mae West purr, “I like to see how I’m doing.” She was 83 at the time…She was “woke” before woke was woke.”
The play woke me up, too. It’s sometimes difficult to remember to find the nectar in life. But the play, with its DIY production, clever lines, and energetic and impressive talent, not only shows the nectar but shares it. It’s the story of “hard beginnings and happy endings,” as the promo proclaims!
Buzzworks Theater Company, a production company formed in 1992 and composed of professional artists, brings the play to Hudson Theatres at 6539 Santa Monica Boulevard on Hollywood Theatre Row for a run from May 11 – June 17, 2018.
“I’m not entertaining,” Margy says, as she refuses visitors. “Yes, you are,” I joyfully whisper aloud. Entertainment isn’t always about actual sex, it’s about the energy of sex, which is creative as well as procreative. Without sex, where would we be?