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Wicked wit of the West.

A revival of Mall play Sex recalls the homophobia that got it censored 74 years ago

Sex * Gershwin Hotel, New York City (through January 31) * Written by Mae West * Directed by Elyse Singer * Starring Carolyn Baeumler

Long before she became a Hollywood icon, Mae West secured her infamy on Broadway with a self-penned play called Sex. Not only did the 1926 show put West on the map, it also put her behind bars. Arrested for Sex's "immoral" content, the show's savvy star took advantage of the scandal. Upon being sentenced to eight days on Welfare Island, West quipped, "I expect it will be the malting of me." The rest, as they say, is her story.

Now, in a tiny performance space at the Gershwin Hotel, Sex is being staged in New York City for the first time since its debut. In order to put the play into its historical context, director Elyse Singer has borrowed a page from the 1997 off-Broadway hit Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and has flamed Sex's three acts with excerpts from West's actual obscenity trial. Disturbingly, these censors' accusations sound as troubling today as they did nearly 75 years ago--arguments not unlike those still used to bar gay and lesbian artists from public funding and public self-expression.

Still, the play's the thing--and what a silly thing it is! Led by a delicious newcomer named Carolyn Baeumler, the company gamely plunges into West's clunky yet good-natured romp about a prostitute crossing international borders, class lines, and cops as quickly as her wits can carry her. Throw in some vaudeville tunes, a hunky sailor, and a couple of drag queens, and Sex starts to resemble a Charles Busch comedy.

Of course, camp directed in part at her gay fans has always been West's edge. And in fact, the launching of her legend is rooted in homophobia. According to scholar Lillian Schlissel (editor of Three Plays by Mae West), the primary reason West was slapped with an "obscenity charge" for Sex was not the play's hetero high jinks but the homo romp she planned as her next show. "The play had been running for almost a year," Schlissel writes, so "the anti-vice societies were sending a warning--Mae West was not to expect a career as a Broadway playwright." Schlissel argues that in fact West's highly anticipated follow-up, The Drag--subtitled A Homosexual Comedy--"was the play under attack" by Sex's censors. At the time, discussion of "perverts" on the New York stage was illegal. And while The Drag was a hit with out-of-town audiences, the New York moral watchdogs achieved their goal by closing down Sex: West's gay play never arrived on Broadway.

Ultimately one has to wonder, if it hadn't been for gay men--and simpatico women such as Singer and Baeumler--would there ever have been a Mae West? Fortunately for the arts, all have lived to entertain another day. Just like the revival of Sex.

Drake is a writer and performer whose The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me will soon be a feature film.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Drake, David
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Theater Review
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Feb 1, 2000
Words:509
Previous Article:A genius and a gentleman.
Next Article:The dame's key player.
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