Photo:  Joan Marcus
Photo: Joan Marcus
Divas aren't born, they're made. More precisely, they're finely fashioned out of their own imaginations. Unlike diamonds in the rough, which to shine must be polished and cut, future divas at birth are cracked crystal at best. Yet if divas were born already diamond-hewn, they'd never feel the need to do all the dirty work it takes to become a diva - and not just in one's mind, mind you, but in the eyes of a critical world.

How do I know all this? Because, honey, I am a diva! And it is because of that self-proclaimed divadom that I feel such a kinship with writer/performer Claudia Shear, whose new play, Dirty Blonde, is currently running at New York Theatre Workshop.

Shear first came to prominence in 1993 with her smash Off-Broadway hit, Blown Sideways Through Life, a solo spree that also began life at the New York Theater Workshop detailing Shear's 64-job search for employment and happiness as a struggling actress in New York City. Since that resounding triumph - including a long run and national tour - not much else has been heard from Shear. I checked her resume, and sure, she's done a ton of roles here and there, both on television and film, but she is still not yet the household name she desires to be. Short, funny, cute and zaftig just like me, Shear is a leading lady trapped in a character actor's body. So just as Shear became her own playwright with Blown Sideways..., she now returns to her self-creating roots in Dirty Blonde. Like countless divas before her, Shear knows that only she can write the script to her own success story.

Perhaps this is why Shear has chosen to focus on Mae West - their stories are quite similar. Like Shear, West began singing, acting and wisecracking at an early age, and while she did not possess conventional leading-lady looks, West believed she was sexy - girls, she was sexy - and she knew how to flaunt it, on stage and off. No stranger to scandal, West would do anything to get attention from audiences or the press, so she quickly became famous for being fearless, feckless, and fun. In the end, it was West's unwavering ambition, well-publicized infamy and talent, that 40 years after her birth, finally propelled her to an unlikely yet somehow pre-ordained stardom.

Dirty Blonde opens with Shear doing an approximation of an early West, a bit "talent-lite" in a bottom-of-the-barrel burlesque act. The play then traces West's transformation from flop to fabulous, but not by any means of a straightforward linear biography. Instead, the play simultaneously interweaves the story of Jo and Charlie, two fictional, single, disaffected New Yorkers who meet at West's gravesite on the anniversary of her birth. Both Jo and Charlie are desperate to possess a little bit of West's style and flair, and by the end, they both, in a sense, become her. Though the script is an intricate double story, it seamlessly unfolds, easily integrating historical facts from West's illustrious career with the more banal yet charming story of two New Yorkers trying to find themselves and each other. In a performance approaching tour de force, Shear is excellent in the dual roles of the West-obsessed Jo (obviously a thinly-veiled Shear) as well as the diva West herself. Shear does not channel West, but cleverly puts her own indelible stamp on her impersonation.

At one point, Jo explains her kinship with Mae West like this: "she was short, she was dumpy, she was from Brooklyn, and it took her 40 years to make it." In just that one statement, Shear gives all divas hope! That line also summarizes the reason why the play works so beautifully - because it isn't all about Mae West. It's also about Shear, about the diva in all us, about anyone who has ever imagined themselves looming larger than life. Most encouraging to those of us who don't neatly fall into an identifiable casting type, Shear proves that you don't have to be an 18-year-old anorexic model to make it in this business, and certainly not if you have West and Shear's self-knowledge, perseverance, drive and hilarious wit. Like West, Shear knows exactly which lines work for her persona and which don't, and by the end of the piece, the two characters' voices mix together interchangeably. Whether Shear is mocking a menopause medication commercial as Jo, or vamping up the stage as a topless West, you cannot watch Dirty Blonde without thinking that a diva by any other name would glitter just as gaily.

Kevin Chamberlain is a standout as Charlie, Jo's film buff buddy and fellow West fetishist, often stealing the show with his insightful and winning portrayal of a man who wishes he could himself go West. Robert Stillman completes the three-member ensemble in a variety of supporting roles; he's also the musical director of the show.

Thanks to James Lapine's focused direction and Shear's meticulous if challenging script, the evening never becomes confusing. The audience can easily follow and enjoy both stories, which are complemented beautifully by Susan Hilferty's costumes and David Ladner's ingenious lighting.

Finally, the most riveting sequence is when Shear transforms into West behind an onstage scrim. Physically, all Shear does is don a corset, a gown, a wig, a hat and some heels, but there is no adjustment to her makeup or to any other part of her body. Yet suddenly, this formerly frumpy gal is transformed into an undeniable sex symbol, the very essence of West. And that's not just acting, baby, that's being a diva. I know not only because I am one, but because I also know that Claudia Shear knows that I am one too.