Sex at the Aurora

Dave and I saw a production of Mae West’s rediscovered play Sex at the Aurora Theater. It’s an odd play. At the intermission I had decided it just wasn’t very good, little more than a bunch of vaudeville skits, songs, and jokes loosely linked together by some common characters. But the second act was a big surprise: Many of the apparently disconnected story lines unexpectedly came together and a real plot with real interest and conflict and humor developed. Not a great comedy by any means, just a lightweight sex farce, but the second act was a lot of fun.

The production itself was enjoyable but not ideal. Dave and I both felt that the director and actors were taking a bit too campy an attitude toward the material. This kind of comedy is very difficult to pull off if you aren’t experienced with it, but you can’t slum in it, and it’s a trap to think that because it’s relatively superficial, you can play it on the surface. The characters are less well rounded, more archetypical, than in more sophisticated comedies, but you still need to build them up as you would a character in a more substantial play. And you shouldn’t mock the sentimental parts; they’re an important part of the structure.

For me, the moment when the production and the play were most out of synch was Agnes’s surprise reappearance in Port-au-Prince. For the story to work, this ought to be played seriously for sentiment and pathos; we should see that Margy loves Agnes like a sister, and that she is genuinely shocked and brokenhearted over Agnes’s miserable and impoverished situation. We should not only see but feel that Margy’s fear of becoming like Agnes is what causes her to drop the man she loves and to pursue a wealthy young man with whom she has to pretend she is a different kind of woman than she is.

Instead, though, Agnes continued to speak in her affected widdle-girly voice, and move with the same self-consciously zany mannerisms, so that we didn’t really believe much in her situation, or in Margy’s concern for her. Margy’s subsequent change of affection seemed like capricious gold-digging, and the moment near the end of the play where she decides to abandon her charade felt unmotivated.

For all that, the show is lively and a lot of fun, and if Mae West’s first act feels a bit rambling and disjointed, her second act well makes up for it.

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