Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Through August 27
Back in my high school drama class days, one of the senior assignments was to write a solo show in which the student portrayed a famous person. As you might expect, these biographical plays, written by 16-year-old kids before the advent of computer research, ran the gamut. My favorite was a star turn by a kid who went on to become a founding member of the Actors Gang, and who portrayed Ed McMahon, perennial sidekick to Johnny Carson, depicting him as a sad, unfulfilled goon living in the shadow of the stars who crossed his path. However, more often someone would do Judy Garland or Abraham Lincoln, and there was often some movie star or athlete of the day.
Author Willard Manus’s play, featuring Cindy Marinangel as the great Marlene Dietrich, feels weirdly like one of those high school bio-plays. The show, set in 1960, takes place backstage at Berlin’s Titania Palast Theater, shortly before Dietrich is scheduled to perform a concert — her first in Germany since the war. Dietrich is understandably nervous: she had sided with the Allies during the war, and now some regard her as a traitor to Germany. Moreover, she’s now receiving death threats warning her against performing in Berlin. But Dietrich is nothing if not strong-willed and, as she fearlessly prepares for her performance, she delivers an interview to an invisible reporter which turns into a bittersweet walk down schnitzel memory lane.
The life of Marlene Dietrich is intrinsically interesting subject matter, but director Judith Rose’s production is workmanlike at best, and more than occasionally plays like a German-accented reading of Dietrich’s Wikipedia page. Marinangels’s Dietrich lolls about the stage, pretend-smoking cigarettes and rhapsodizing over her relationships with Josef Von Sternberg, George Patton, and other luminaries of 20th century history. Occasionally, she bursts into renditions of “Falling in Love Again” and “Lili Marlene.” In lieu of conflict, every so often some former Nazi phones the dressing room to threaten her. Otherwise, the show is a fairly traditional trudge of facts and memories, with Marinangel’s Dietrich declaiming clunky lines such as “It was Patton who gave me my medal at the Battle of the Bulge!”
Often the folks who create this sort of show really have no idea what their main character was actually like, so they fall back on standard biographical data and the well-mined public image. The result comes across as shallow and obvious. Marlene can’t have been a vampy souse every minute of her life, and while this diva version of her has some starry appeal, this one- dimensional portrait makes for a one note experience. Who is this person, really? Playwright Manus never even comes close to exploring anything beneath the surface of this iconic figure.
Marinangel’s performance is adequate, and she has certainly mastered Dietrich’s couldn’t-care-less personality. However, it often seems as though we know more about her before entering the theater than we learn here, and this Marlene is far more of an inscrutable mystery than she needs to be.
Brickhouse Theatre, 10950 Peach Grove St., North Hollywood; Sun., 7 p.m.; through August 27. (800) 836-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3034406. Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission.