The female icons of today -- Madonna, Cher, Celine -- live in tepid times in comparison to their iconic forerunners. In the days when women were expected to be milder and meeker, not only were Mae, Tallulah and Marlene outspoken, independent and sexy, they were as adept at handling a script as they were at handling a summons.
Of the latter three, Mae West most famously balanced her career with a criminal record through a combination of indifference and humor. Born to a working class Brooklyn family obsessed with show business, she realized early on how even bad publicity can be good for a career, and so invented, and reinvented, a distinctively bawdy persona. Most associate that persona with West's magic "come up and see me sometime" invitation to Cary Grant on film, but West also spent decades on stage, usually headlining on Broadway and on tour.
West's fame crystallized in 1926 when she starred in Sex, a play she wrote under the pseudonym Jane Mast. Her mother's gangster friends put up the money for the show -- the story of a prostitute's revenge upon a society mother who sent her to jail -- and almost instantly, the 32-year-old West had her first big hit at the box office. In the theater, timing is everything, and soon the 1926-27 season was filled with more Sex-like "dirt shows" than the legitimate stage had ever seen before.
"There were sporadic agitations, mostly in the press," recalled Burns Mantle in his annual Best Plays volume, leading the District Attorney and even Governor Al Smith to clamor for an end to the spreading stage smut. Committees were formed to tackle the thorny issue of censorship, but by the time they convened, the list of objectionable shows has grown substantially. Then the producers of Sex threatened to bring in The Drag, another "Jane Mast" play, this one focused on the lifestyle of "effeminate males." That, predictably, was the last straw.
With New York Mayor Jimmy Walker out of town, the D.A. went to work. According to Mantle, the D.A. "ordered the raiding of three of the offensive dramas," one of which was Sex, then in its 41st week at Daly's 63rd St. Theatre. Following a sensational trial, West was sent to the workhouse for 10 days and fined $500, leaving Broadway safe, at last, from Sex.
West, of course, moved on to countless other successes on stage and screen, and remained a celebrity through the rest of her life. Still, until her death in 1980, West clung to the hope that Sex would be revived. Not wanting anybody else to play the lead role, she also fiercely guarded the play's copyright and never had the play published. As a result, much of West's work has today been forgotten, with few attempts to revive Sex or any of West's nine plays in New York or elsewhere. Then, two years ago, director Elyse Singer decided Sex would be the perfect project for the company she co-founded, The Hourglass Group.
"[Sex] evolved from our production of Love in the Void," Singer says, "which was an adaptation of Courtney Love's Internet posts. People were shocked that Courtney Love was such an incredible writer and used language in a fascinating way. She posted email responses to fans, which became a dialogue on a public bulletin board. One day during rehearsal, we talked about her precursors: women who were independent, powerful, sexy, strong, funny and angry...modern role models. We made a list and Mae West, with all of those qualities, came closest to Courtney."
At about the same time, Singer read a new biography on West, and her search for Sex began. After checking local bookstores and the library at Lincoln Center, she sent a friend to the Library of Congress, but there the pickings were slim: the script existed on microfilm, and could not be printed. Singer next tracked down the current executor of the West estate, California attorney Roger Richman, who ultimately led her ("by a clue") to the script.
Sharing only two copies of the play, five actors soon held a private reading of Sex, with everyone passing the script around the room. Next, 10 minutes of Sex was performed as part of New George's annual Perform-a-thon in March 1996, followed by a tryout at New York Theatre Workshop. The Hourglass Group then began rights negotiations to Sex two years ago, and finally inked a deal in August of this year.
The three founding members of The Hourglass Group are Singer, Carol Baeumler and Nina Hellman, and they have been collaborating since 1994. Their rapport is easy and respectful. "We enjoy working together," Singer says, "and the plays we have done together have a common theme: female icons. So if Sex was going to be produced, we knew we would do it."
So how does a notorious play from 1926 survive the leap into the Millennium? Cast member Dominic Hamilton-Little says "The language is delightful, and the issues, which will be around for as long as there is sex (and people who are willing to pay for it), are timeless."
Singer answers the question this way: "We agreed that a prostitute is honest when she says, 'I will have sex with you for payment.' It's her business transaction. But, if a society woman marries a man for his money, she becomes a different kind of prostitute, because she frowns upon the call girl. The play also has a cynical moral code: love can't exist without sexual desire or financial payment."
"The play is also very funny," adds Singer, "and a great sexual energy fills its design. We all know a lot of powerful, smart, funny, sexy women, but they're not represented very often on stage, and that's what makes this project so exciting. Also, we're not in the shadow of anybody -- since we really don't know what Mae West's performance was like -- but the dialogue is terrific and the punctuation is coded for rhythm. West had a musicality of language, which is just as important as motivation."
Original jazz music by Steven Bernstein compliments the story. And, in homage to West's vaudeville roots, the 23 roles in Sex are dispersed among a 10-person cast.
Sex runs through January 16 at The Gershwin Hotel, with a holiday break in the playing schedule from December 19 through January 6.