Stage Door Review

Sex

Sunday, August 4, 2019

✭✭

by Mae West, directed by Peter Hinton-Davis

Shaw Festival, Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

July 5-October 13, 2019

Margy: “To me all men are just assets”

I have long been waiting for the Shaw Festival to stage the once-notorious play Sex (1926) by Mae West (1893-1980). Now it has but the result is extremely disappointing. Not only is the play miscast but the direction is perverse and the design is baffling.

Sex, with its deliberately provocative title, a main character who is a prostitute and its open comparison of prostitution to marriage, received scathing reviews for its vulgarity and immorality, yet was a success on Broadway and ran for 375 performances until the New York City police decided to raid the theatre and arrest West and the entire company on charges of obscenity. The arrest only boosted West’s fame and she quickly moved on from the stage to Hollywood where she wrote the story or screenplay for nine of the twelve movies she starred in.

The play focusses on Margy LaMont (Diana Donnelly), the role West wrote for herself, a prostitute in Montreal who longs to escape the hold that the criminal Rocky (Kristopher Bowman) has over her. When Rocky goes out to seduce a society dame, Margy meets with an old client and friend Lieutenant Gregg (André Sills). He is in love with Margy and encourages her to “follow the fleet” so she can be with him and become wealthy pursuing a higher class of clientele. When Margy and Gregg are out, Rocky returns with the wealthy American woman “Claire Smith” (Fiona Byrne), dopes and robs her and flees. Margy and Gregg return just in time to revive “Claire”. When the corrupt policeman Dawson (Ric Reid) arrives “Claire” blames Margy for the robbery. When Margy threatens to tell “Claire”’s husband what she she has been doing, “Claire” pays off the policeman and they part in mutual animosity.

The second of the play’s three acts finds Margy in Port of Spain, Trinidad. She has followed Gregg’s advice and and has become well off. Jimmy Stanton (Julia Course), the teenaged son of a millionaire, is her latest conquest. What’s different is that Jimmy is so in love with Margy he wants to marry her. Not only that, Margy has fallen in love with Jimmy, the innocent young man who loves her. Jimmy wants Margy to meet his family. She resists but in the third act, set in Connecticut, we see that Jimmy has convinced her despite her misgivings. Confusion and resolution come when many of the characters from Montreal happen to turn up at the Stanton’s house.

West labelled her play a “comedy-drama” and the enormous coincidence of so many characters from Margy’s past all appearing in one house in Connecticut certainly belongs more to farce than to drama. Besides this, the play, which has occasionally slipped into melodrama, ends on a highly satiric comic note.

In his Director’s Notes, Peter Hinton-Davis (né Peter Hinton) states: “In reading Sex, the expectation of witty epigrams and double entendre falls away to reveal a writer who understands sex as central to the pursuit of personal freedom and the means by which we legislate gender, orientation and identity”. What Hinton-Davis doesn’t seem to realize is that West can make important points about sex and still be funny. As another banned play like Molière’s Tartuffe (1664) demonstrates, thoroughgoing criticism of social practices does not exclude comedy.

To underscore the play’s serious intent, Hinton-Davis loads the production with an array of alienation effects. Eo Sharp’s set deign puts poles at the four corner of the arena stage that have height measures on them and at the start of the play the characters enter and pose first as if in a police lineup. Props are labelled with tags as “evidence”. The set for the first act representing the parlour of Margy’s brothel, consists of nothing but suitcases piled up which rather makes nonsense of various characters’ praise of how well she’s done the place up. Do the height bars refer to the cast’s arrest in 1927? Do the suitcases refer to all the travel in the play? There’s no way to know.

Even stranger is that Sharp decorates the night-club in Port of Spain and the Stantons’ home in Connecticut with appropriate furniture, not suitcases. is there something that is more real about those locations than the brothel? If so that idea severely undercuts the parallels among the three that West sets up in the play. 

Hinton-Davis also uses gender-blind casting, but for only some of the roles. Most prominent is Margy’s friend Agnes whom Hinton-Davis has played by a man and Jimmy whom he has played by a woman. Mae West was no Marlene Dietrich in challenging gender stereotypes in her act and in the play men are men and women women. So if Hinton-Davis’s partial gender-blind casting is not an alienation device, its meaning is unclear.

Hinton-Davis’s entire approach is to turn Sex into a Brechtian critique of capitalist exploitation by men of women and the upper class of the lower. To that end he has songs sung during the overlong scene changes and even uses the song “Pirate-Jenny” as the show’s exit music, forgetting perhaps that its source, Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (1928), is also meant to be comic. 

Hinton-Davis’s attempts to focus our attention on the serious issues in Sex go completely contrary to West’s own subtler technique of irony. As the programme’s background note by Pamela Robertson Wojcik makes clear, nothing in the play’s text itself is provocative. At West’s trial, “Selected dialogue from the play was read as proof of obscenity, but it was more the way West delivered lines and moved her body that caused the lines to seem filthy”. Hinton-Davis totally misses this point and has Donnelly deliver Margy’s lines in a uniformly bland tone, even though it’s clear that judicious pauses and emphases could lend seemingly ordinary statements the ironic kick or sexual implications that one sees in all of West films. This does not mean that Hinton-Davis should have Donnelly imitate West. It does mean, however, that he should have encouraged Donnelly to use a more complex style of delivery to bring out the implications in Margy’s lines. 

The result of Hinton-Davis’s approach is that Sex turns out to be quite dull. This is strange since Hinton-Davis was able to present the mixture of melodrama and comedy brilliantly in Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Shaw in 2013 without tamping down the comedy. Why does he not see the same mixture in West, who was so well known for her risqué humour?

It does not help the show that the central role is grievously miscast. Diana Donnelly has previously given many fine performances at the Shaw, but the role of Margy LaMont requires someone who can exude sexiness and sass, neither of which Donnelly is willing or able to do. Donnelly’s sole method of conveying Margy’s worldliness is to speak in an unvaryingly bored tone of voice. Far from spicing up her lines or lending another dimension to her character, the general enervation of Donnelly’s Margy infects the whole show. 

What energy there is comes from Kristopher Bowman as Rocky. Unlike Donnelly he presents Rocky as dangerous, seductive and full of vitality. His scenes with the would-be worldly “Claire”, drugging her drinks as he flatters her, are truly chilling and represent the dark side of the play that the light side of comedy should balance.

Similarly representing that dark side is the Agnes of Jonathan Tan. He is quite convincing as the female prostitute who wants to go straight. The agony and depression Tan so well expresses in Agnes is meant to act as a foil to Margy’s devil-may-care nature while at the same time indicating a fate that awaits too many women in Agnes’s and Margy’s profession.

As Margy’s potential saviour, the British naval officer Lieutenant Gregg, André Sills attempts an RP accent that makes everything he says sound stilted. He even makes Gregg’s gestures too stiff and fomal, especially for an old friend and client of Margy’s. Gregg, after all, has no scruples about advising Margy to “follow the fleet” for greater success.

Overall, Fiona Byrne is excellent as the society dame calling herself “Claire Smith”. Byrne conveys the unusual mixture of innocence, excitement and fear in a newcomer to sin who is trying too hard not to let her naïveté show. Byrne is such a fine actor that it is odd she doesn’t gradate the descent of “Claire” under the influence nor a gradual recovery from grogginess to lucidity. This is likely a symptom of Hinton-Davis’s general lack of attention to detail.

Julia Course does as well as she can playing the rich teen Jimmy Stanton. Course well depicts a youth who is more in love with the fantasy of what Margy represents than any reality. Yet, Course makes Jimmy appear so in command that we are surprised to think that knowledge of Margy’s profession would shatter him. 

Anyone who attends Sex expecting an evening of ribald comedy similar to one of West’s films like My Little Chickadee (1940) will not get it. Neither will anyone who expects a charismatic performance from the actor in the central West role of Margy. Hinton-Davis has worked hard to ensure that the play is not the “scandalously funny play” that the 2019 Shaw brochure advertises.

Those interested in early American drama will want to see Sex since it is so rarely revived. Indeed, seeing that play makes one want to see other plays by West such as The Drag (1927) about homosexuality that was so scandalous at the time it was not allowed to open in New York. One would also like to see more works by West’s contemporaries. The Shaw Festival has, for instance, never staged Machinal (1928) by Sophie Treadwell, one the greatest early 20th-century American plays. 

Yet, while West may have been a pioneer in American drama, Shaw Festival fans should remember that the Festival’s namesake author presented the same concatenation of ideas of prostitution, exploitation and capitalism in his play Mrs. Warren’s Profession written in 1893 but not performed until 1902. If the Shaw Festival had cleverer programming this year, presenting Sex and Mrs. Warren together would have provided an exciting pair to compare and contrast. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Diana Donnelly as Margy La Mont; Kristopher Bowman as Rocky and Fiona Byrne as “Claire Smith”; Jonathan Tan as Agnes; Diana Donnelly as Margy La Mont. © 2019 David Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com.