It’s nearly impossible to talk about Mae West’s Sex without delving into the controversy it created when it was written and first produced.
That dates back to 1926 to 27, when West was jailed for the lewd content of the play, which she wrote and starred in. Unsurprising given the time, but it’s a very sex-positive play, honest about sex and social-climbing across America.
But dwelling on the controversy misses West’s point, and turns Sex into a symbol of something it wasn’t. West may have been invoking just a little bit of camp with Sex, but the play isn’t some grand statement on the celebration of sex workers in 1926. It is, however, their primal scream.
Margy LaMont (Diana Donnelly) lives in Montreal’s red light district, with dreams of turning a life of prostitution into an honest one. That’s where she spends her days keeping other people out of trouble. When Rocky (Kristopher Bowman), the building’s proprietor, nearly kills a wealthy client in the apartment, it’s Margy and Agnes (Jonathan Tan) who clean up the mess. Tired of the trade, she’s swept away to Trinidad in the arms of a frequent customer, English Lieutenant Gregg (Andre Sills).
In Trinidad, Margy spots her way out: wealthy youth Jimmy Stanton (Julia Course), in the country inspecting his father’s plantation. Margy seduces the youth, and he asks for her hand in marriage. She thinks everything is in the clear despite the misgivings of Lieutenant Gregg, whose own proposal Margy rejected in Montreal.
In the final act, when all looks clear for Margy, in a remarkable (and frankly, a little too unbelievable) scene, her past catches up to her. The morals of Jimmy’s family (as well as an unexpected and eye-rolling twist) force Margy to reconsider her attempt at a life on the straight and narrow.
It’s in this final act where everything falls apart. The Shaw’s production is, however, stuck with bad plotting from Mae West and does the best it can with it. West just failed to stick the landing. The first three acts are well structured. From Montreal to Trinidad, she pushes against an existence as a sex worker with a carefully plotted and organic flow. But in the final act, West crams so much of the first three acts into Margy’s life that it takes all of the earned drama and spins it into an awful soap opera of eye-rolling coincidences. And to add insult to injury, West apparently wanted to just wrap the whole thing up with a snap of her fingers, so the lights go down on the final scene with such an abrupt denouement, audience members might well have suffered whiplash. Thankfully, the play’s final resolution was a better case of set-up and payoff than the rest of the last act.
Acts one through three play at such a consistent pace that the final act truly feels like a different play, but despite this issue, the Shaw handles it remarkably well. Sex is featured in the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre and the use of space is inventive and involving. The second act, set in a Trinidadian cafe, evokes festivals across the Caribbean and the intimacy of the room allows for it to really seem more like an actual Caribana than a stage performance. This use of space and restrained realism from the performances make Sex and its story feel more important than the controversy surrounding it suggests.
As Margy, the ever-busy socialite of the underground, Donnelly keeps her temper even when it’s clear other women, such as her companion Agnes, are at their wits’ end. Margy’s self-control and need to just have a little fun from time to time is disrupted by Rocky, who is the ever-tense grifter in her life in Montreal. Rocky’s mostly on edge, but when he needs to, he can charm, and boy does Kristopher Bowman shine here. Rocky almost comes across as sympathetic — until his charm eventually reveals his true motives. Donnelly and Bowman knock it out of the park and it’s a real shame that Rocky didn’t return in later acts because their banter was a real highlight. However, Cameron Grant in multiple roles certainly took up that mantle in other scenes; so too for Allegra Fulton in multiple roles, and Ric Reid in his two roles, including as a Raymond Chandler-esque New York police officer just waiting for a reason to bust Margy and Rocky. Andre Sills, as the ever-polite yet salacious Lieutenant Gregg, was also a consistent, measured conscience for Margy. Though his role in her life was uncomfortable, his ineffable charm kept her honest to herself throughout, and this is due in large part to Sills in the role. At once prim, proper, soldierly, and in the next oozing lustful wanton pleasure over Margy. The pair are achingly intimate and in one scene likely responsible for the lewdness charges, arguably “inappropriate,” but I’ll get into the pearl-clutching shortly.
Interestingly, director Peter Hinton-Davis chose to gender swap a key role in Sex. As youthful heir Jimmy Stanton, Julia Course is so picture perfect for the role. As in this season’s Glass Menagerie, her physicality, her ability to almost warp her movements on stage, are part of her appeal. She seems to make Jimmy big and small, a diminutive child just out of college who thinks he’s worldly yet knows nothing, and she does this by giving Jimmy a just subtle enough walk of false confidence throughout. Money has given Jimmy everything except understanding, and Course sells the naivety perfectly.
Now, to the pearl-clutching. Sex is a drama, first and foremost. There are some double entendres in the dialogue and the final act ventures into the territory of an absurdist comedy, but continuing to market the play on its controversy does a disservice to Mae West’s role as a feminist and to Sex. The play became a symbol of lewdness instead of an honest, (mostly) sex-positive breath of fresh air. However, we can’t pretend we live in a world where the sex trade isn’t vilified and women don’t face undue societal pressures, restricted movement up corporate ladders, and discrimination. Sex posits that sex workers are people, an important message in 1926 and one still important today. Instead, Sex has become a footnote because of its controversy.
Manage your expectations. Understand that it was a controversy because of bigotry that still exists today, suffering a similar fate as Lenny Bruce — remembered because of “inappropriate” content, not for the message in it.