This month, if you’re looking for good Sex, you may need to head for Berkeley.
This week, the Aurora Theatre Company opens Mae West’s 1926 show Sex starring Delia MacDougall as Margy LaMont, the role West originated herself.
MacDougall, a familiar face to Bay Area audiences (she most recently died onstage in California Shakespeare Theater’s King Lear), grew up in Mountain view and remembers her mother taking her to Palo Alto’s Stanford Theatre to see old movies.
“My mom was a big fan of Mae West’s and would quote her all the time,” MacDougall says from her San Francisco home. “I loved all those sexy pre-Code 1930s ladies. I think Mae West had something to her that was more powerful than any of them — more sexual but not very sexy. She was a powerful, sexual woman.”
Of course young Delia didn’t necessarily know what West was talking about.
“It still takes me a while to catch on — she makes innuendo out of everything.”
Even before MacDougall was approached by Aurora artistic director Tom Ross about playing West’s role in Sex, the busy actor/director was something of a West aficionado.
“I saw her films then started reading the biographies. I was impressed by the paths she cut,” MacDougall says.
After an audition for another Aurora show, MacDougall was sensing she didn’t get the part when Ross handed her the Sex script. The first few pages had MacDougall hooked, and she knew she wanted to do the show.
“The character, Margy LaMont, is clearly a prostitute, and that’s what was so upsetting to people at the time,” MacDougall explains. “She’s very real, which is a funny thing to associate with Mae West. In the ’20s, prostitutes onstage had to suffer and die at the end. Audiences had to believe there was good in them somewhere. But with Margy, it’s not like that.”
Sex got bad reviews when it opened, but, as you might imagine, audiences adored it. It ran for a year before the City of New York sent the police in to shut it down. West was arrested on a morals charge and served eight days in prison (though legend has it she was allowed to wear her silk underwear in jail).
Of course, being the Madonna of her day, West turned all the publicity to her advantage, wrote more plays (most of which were shut down or forced out of town) and made her way to Hollywood.
Because Sex emerged before the West persona was set in curvy stone, the character of Margy is, as MacDougall puts it, “more man- and society-angry than later West characters. Mae had a better sense of humor than Margy.”
Consequently, MacDougall does not have to do an out-and-out West imitation, though she is working on her shimmy.
“I think it’s a good play — it’s not Inherit the Wind but it moves quickly, you don’t know where it’s going and it has characters you love,” MacDougall says. “And Mae always wrote that Margy is in a clinch, so I love playing the part because I’m always in the arms of some guy.”
This will be the year MacDougall chose Sex over Christmas (the sex jokes just never end with a title like that). She was all set to go back into American Conservatory Theater’s annual A Christmas Carol, but decided to opt for West’s play.
“I don’t know how many more years I can be in a play called Sex,” she says.
If you’d like to sample a little of West at her best before you head to Sex, which is directed by Ross and features Maureen McVerry, Danny Wolohan, Steve Irish, Robert Brewer, Kristin Stokes and Craig Jessup, MacDougall recommends West’s first movie, Night After Night, in which a hat-check girl says to West, “Goodness, what lovely diamonds.” To which West replies, “Dearie, goodness had nothing to do with it.”
MacDougall also recommends listening to West’s song “A Guy What Takes His Time.”
The Aurora’s Sex continues through Dec. 9 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40 to $42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.