Deborah Gilmour Smith as Marlene
Eric Hanes’s story sounds like a tall tale. An ordinary travel agent from Sweden visits Paris for work and ends up baby-sitting for Marlene Dietrich? Right…
But the story is true. Mostly. Playwright Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey recounts her father’s tale in the world premiere at Lamb’s.
In October 1938, Hanes (Brian Mackey) was sent to Paris to scout the Hotel Lancaster for his travel agency. He met Dietrich (Deborah Gilmour Smyth), who’d just fired her governess over a suspected affair with her husband. As a thank-you for watching her young daughter Maria (Avery Trimm), Dietrich invited Eric to dine with famous friends: her lover Erich Maria Remarque (Jason Heil), who wrote All Quiet on the Western Front; violinist Fritz Kreisler (John Rosen); Woolworth heiress Barbara “Countess” Hutton (Rachel Van Wormer); and a bourgeois Belgian wife (Cynthia Gerber). That much is true.
Hanes Harvey adds a bit of fiction. Characters personify their homelands on the eve of war. Austrian, Belgian, and German guests squabble throughout the evening. The lonely Swede observes from a distance. The American can’t pronounce anyone’s names.
Set designer Mike Buckley brings the hotel’s Tout Paris restaurant to life with bronze, and scarlet satin drapes the stage walls. A crystal chandelier hangs downstage over an elongated dining-room table. Props designer Rachel Hengst adds Versaille chairs, gold chargers, and crystal stemware to complete each elegant place-setting.
Costumes by Jeanne Reith showcase rank and backstory. Most men wear tuxes, but Krieisler opts for a small suit and suede shoes — a hint that the Jewish musician stands apart. The Belgian auctioneer’s wife dons jewelry most likely stolen from Nazi profiteers. Hotel proprietor Madame Wolff (Kerry Meads) recycles last-year’s fashion, signaling her precarious finances. Marlene wears her iconic tux.
Cast of Dinner with Marlene
With war not far off, what could Europe’s social elite possibly talk about over dinner? “No politics!” the American countess declares. Yet, Hitler’s drum-beat to war infects the discourse. Too much champagne cracks the façade of civility. By mid-course, Boubiel unleashes an anti-semitic rant. Eric is pressured to tell a racist joke. With “velvet eyes,” Kreisler and the waiter (Patrick Duffy) hold their tongues while the Aryan dilettantes cackle.
Kreisler entertains guests with folk songs of yesteryear. Wolff and Boubeil belt nationalist Nazi propaganda. The star of the evening derails tension with music and cigarette breaks.
Gilmour Smyth’s husky rendition of “Can’t Help It” embodies Dietrich’s swagger. She reminds us the lyrics really say: “I am from top to toe/ Focused on loving you/ That is the world I know/ Or nothing…”
The German lyrics tell of passion and principle. The translation is reduced to a catchy ballad about “falling in love again.” This parallels Dietrich’s own legacy. Through Eric’s eyes and Hanes Harvey’s pen, we see more than just talent and beauty. A woman of passion and principle fighting unjust social forces emerges.
Playing through May 29