nytheatre.com review by Nita Congress
February 25, 2011
“Rubies always put me in such a good frame of mind,” purrs Ylfa Edelstein as Marlene Dietrich, languidly admiring the latest loot from suave lover Erich Maria Remarque, smoothly played by John FitzGibbon.
That tells you everything you need to know about Puma, the 85th offering of the New Jersey Repertory Company: it’s hot, it’s dishy, it’s voluptuous.
Puma, in fact, sizzles. This true-life story of tempestuous, misbegotten lovers Dietrich and novelist Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front) drips with passion and is staged with cool elegance. With four actors and one set, we span two continents, three decades, and innumerable licit and illicit love affairs.
The story is told from Remarque’s point of view. He narrates and comments on the action, then, through seamless theatrical magic, steps back in time to take part in the proceedings. In this way, he shows us scenes of his long relationship with Marlene -- whom he calls “puma,” for her careless, wild catlike manner—beginning in 1938 and ending with his death in 1970. Along the way, we meet in the flesh his current, then ex-, then next wives; and another of her lovers (Jimmy Stewart) and his wife. Implied is a whole passing scene of Hollywood in its Golden Age—Garbo and Davis, Jack Warner and Olivia de Havilland, Ingrid Bergman and Tyrone Power are among the many legends who parade by, primarily as the gleeful objects of Marlene’s pillow talk “shmutz” to Erich.
Against this glamorous backdrop, these two landsmann (Marlene’s characterization) in permanent exile from their native Germany, come together to shtup (again, Marlene’s characterization), shop, cook, eat, gossip, and—increasingly over the years—antagonize and upbraid. From the start, their relationship is unconventional and chaotic: both are married to other people, a circumstance they casually accept and do little over the years to change. They catalogue this unseen but acknowledged entourage shruggingly in their conversations: “the husband” (hers), “the child” (hers), “the mistress” (her husband’s).
The play fluidly, brilliantly, illuminates the arc of their relationship. Drawn to each other in Europe by pure sexual attraction, they come together in America as strangers in a strange land, sharing strudel and a cosmopolitan sensibility. As they acclimate and settle down and in, their differences come to the fore. Ostensibly, the arguments are about love and commitment. He calls her his “favorite form of torment” and tells us how he is “loving every hateful moment of it.” While she taunts him with her many amours—“I don’t sleep with a new one each night: I double up!”—it is she who gets to the crux of their problem, astutely telling the hard-drinking playboy (who earlier had ruefully noted that “Puma was still making movies, and I was still making love to movie stars”) that “where we disagree is work.” Ultimately, there is no sympathy in the Prussian Dietrich outlook for Remarque’s Young Werther, and they move on. But oh, when they burned!
Many talents have come together to make this smart, sexy, and sophisticated play work as beautifully as it does. First credit must go to the playwrights: Julie Gilbert (whose great aunt was Edna Ferber) and Frank Evans have written an intelligent, incisive, and insightful play, firmly based on Remarque’s diaries. Director SuzAnne Barabas, New Jersey Rep’s artistic director, has created a magical place for the drama where just a few steps downstage takes us to the mountains of 1930s Switzerland, a half-turn upstage takes us to a Hollywood bungalow of the forties, a sigh and a step stage left take us to Cartier’s. Barabas does wondrous things with time and space, but never does the time lag or the space lose us. The designers serve her exceedingly well, reinforcing my impression of New Jersey Rep’s consistently high-quality design work: The team of Jessica Parks (scenic design), Jill Nagle (lighting), and Patricia E. Doherty (costume) create a glorious art deco–flavored time of black, white, and chrome, sleekly complementing the action. And Merek Royce Press’s evocative Marlene Dietrich soundtrack played before curtain and during intermission had many of the audience singing “Falling in Love Again” as they left the theatre.
But it is the actors who bring this all to life, through seemingly effortless effort. A more debonair and charming European lover, shot through with perhaps a touch of self-loathing and despair, would be hard to find than John FitzGibbon in the central part. Ylfa Edelstein creates an utterly seductive, desirable, and unobtainable Marlene Dietrich. Their chemistry is palpable. They are ably supported by the quite remarkable Christopher Vettel, who has Jimmy Stewart’s boyish yet shrewd demeanor (and voice) nailed, and Natalie Wilder, who tackles several female roles including Paulette Goddard and Gloria Stewart. My one criticism here would be that Wilder’s characterizations are not as crystallized and well realized as are the others’. But this is a quibble with what is otherwise a highly satisfactory theatrical experience.