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Almost twenty years ago, when in a negative review of Pam Gems's PiafI took the author to further task for distorting both Edith and Marlene Dietrich, I got a charming letter of thanks from Miss Dietrich, graciously overlooking the fact that I had been less than kind to her farewell one-woman show. Now Miss Gems, one of England's more overrated playwrights, is at it again with Marlene, an account of the backstage and onstage goings-on in a 1969 Paris concert hall at the outset of that final concert tour.

What we get is twofold. First, a compilation of oft-rehearsed stories about Dietrich, from her mania for cleanliness as she gets down, her knees on her mink coat, to scrub her dressing-room floor, to her night with Sinatra in Vegas, during which he alternated eating cornflakes with having sex. Also her careful orchestration of curtain calls, pretending to be surprised by the many bouquets she arranged to have delivered at precisely timed intervals. Second, the introduction of an American woman playwright, a friend who slavishly attends to Marlene's every outlandish whim and serves as reverent sounding board for the star's pronouncements, reminiscences, and gripes. This Vivian, whether factual or fictitious, allows the author to suggest a past lesbian relationship without creating more drama than with the silent presence of Mutti, a fussily maternal old dresser, mute since her internment in Dachau.

Marleneis, of course, largely a showpiece for the esteemed Siân Phillips, portraying Dietrich. Helped by Paul Huntley's faithful wig and David C. Woolard and Terry Parsons's accurate costuming, Miss Phillips provides a tolerable though less sexy facsimile, and she does her best to speak and sing like Marlene. But her German is execrable and her French feeble, betokening a poor ear. Her Dietrich accent is wobbly, and her singing falls well short of the original; I have caught more than one female impersonator doing all this better.

As Mutti, Mary Diveny mimes dutifully, but Margaret Whitton's Vivian looks and acts like a no-longer-little Orphan Annie playing Sandy to Marlene. John Arnone's décor is functional, Mark Jonathan's lighting questionable, and Sean Mathias's direction unable to make diamonds of Miss Gems's zircons.


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