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Theater Review: “Dinner With Marlene”

Cast of "Dinner With Marlene"
Photo credit:
Ken Jacques

Dinner with Marlene Dietrich? Count me in, please.

Local playwright and SDSU theater professor Anne-Charlotte Harvey recalls that her 90-year-old father, Eric Evans, told her he dined with the film goddess in Paris in 1938, after Germany annexed Austria and mere months before all hell broke loose in Europe. The 26-year-old Eric had been invited as a thank-you for acting as temporary nanny for her 13-year-old daughter Maria Sieber.

Harvey has imagined a glittering party for eight at the tony Tout Paris restaurant (one table of which is reconstructed on the Lamb’s Players Theatre stage) for the world premiere of “Dinner With Marlene,” playing through May 29. Robert Smyth directs.

There are the famous guests: world-renowned violinist Fritz Kreisler, an Austrian Jew who lost access to his master recordings (played with exquisite sadness by John Rosen); loud and terminally gauche Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton (played to the hilt by Rachael VanWormer), and anti-Nazi novelist (and Dietrich’s current lover) Erich Maria Remarque (Jason Heil), who wrote the banned-and-burned-in-Germany “All Quiet On The Western Front,” and who spends the evening trying to drown his anger in alcohol.

Brian Mackey plays the starry-eyed Eric (who doubles as narrator, introducing the characters) and Escondido middle-schooler Avery Trimm plays Dietrich’s daughter Maria.

The fictional characters are Nazi sympathizer Bernadine Boubiel (Cynthia Gerber), who runs an antiques business with her husband, and hostess Leonore Wolff (Kerry Meads); owner of the chichi Hotel Lancaster. Patrick Duffy plays the wordless Waiter, who rushes in and out with champagne and food.

But we’re all here to see Deborah Gilmour Smyth’s spellbinding Dietrich. “Puma” (as Remarque calls her) looks fabulous in Dietrich’s signature tuxedo and sounds terrific singing “Falling In Love Again” and playing the piano for a waltz by Maria and Eric.

The show is at its best when the dialogue is witty or pointed (Mrs. Boubiel’s comment that Hitler will “make Germany great again” is both funny and a bit uncomfortable). But too often that is not the case. Though the actors are excellent, the script consistently lacks dramatic tension, and the characters often seem to be all alone in a roomful of strangers rather than friends or fellow partiers.

Jeanne Reith’s lovely costumes make the party look great, as does Mike Buckley’s 200th set for the theater.

This is certainly an intriguing idea for a play. Perhaps a rewrite could give these characters the emotional connection to each other and us that they now lack.

The details

“Dinner With Marlene” plays through May 29, 2016 at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue in Coronado.

Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 and 8 pm; Sunday and selected Wednesdays at 2 pm

Tickets: (619) 437-6000 or lambsplayers.org