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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Puma: A Sophisticated, Adult Entertainment

Also see Bob's review of Distracted

Puma
Chris Vettel, Ylfa Edelstein and John FitzGibbon
Puma is the title of the new play by Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans which depicts the three decade long passionate and tempestuous love affair between "All Quiet on the Western Front" author Erich Maria Remarque and international film star and chanteuse Marlene Dietrich. According to the play, Puma, the Latin name for the feline cougar or American mountain lion, was Remarque's affectionate nickname for Dietrich.

Puma is based upon the diaries of Remarque, and is told through his eyes. We are warned right up front that Remarque will fashion the story as he chooses to remember it. This disclaimer allows the authors the creative license to bend events and character to heighten the dramatic and emotional impact of their story. They accomplish this with remarkable effectiveness without undermining our belief.

The play begins in 1964 at the Ritz Towers Hotel in New York where Remarque is reluctantly partaking in a party celebrating his 65th birthday. He directly addresses the audience, taking us back to his remembered first meeting with Dietrich in the early 1930s at a cafe on the Lido in Venice. Both are married to others, but, within a short time, the pair are soon cohabitating in Paris and Switzerland, exiles from Germany and avowed enemies of its fascist Fuhrer. As the 1930s came to an end, Remarque and Dietrich had emigrated to the United States and settled in Hollywood where Dietrich had already become a reigning screen star and Remarque contributed to screenplays and continued to write novels.

Although they did not marry, in effect, throughout all their years together, the form of their relationship was that of an "open marriage" with both having many affairs and, in the case of Dietrich, extended to members of both sexes. Most predominantly featured in Puma are Dietrich's dalliances with her Destry Rides Again co-star James Stewart and Remarque's relationship with a coquettish Paulette Goddard, who is likely best remembered today for her role in Chaplin's The Great Dictator.

I am certain that many people, and not exclusively those under middle age, are not aware of these and later events in the lives of these former icons of our popular culture, so I'll refrain from any spoilers as to the ensuing years of their relationships. Suffice it to say that Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans recount the tale with sophistication, humor, pain and dimensionality. Dietrich and Goddard each get the short end of the stick. Dietrich and Remarque's strong attraction is mutual, but it is Dietrich who has the voracious sexual attitude that determines their relationship and combines with a streak of cruelty to undermine it. Goddard is depicted as a calculating, money hungry predator vixen. On the other hand, Remarque is a sophisticated, albeit hard drinking, gentleman who loves and is supportive of all the women in his wife. Even Jimmy Stewart is pretty much shown with his nice fella, unsophisticated screen persona as he apologizes to Remarque for getting into the sack with Dietrich. Remember, this is putatively the world according to Remarque.

Director SuzAnne Barabas has assembled an unusually strong cast whom she has directed in high theatrical style. John FitzGibbon brings continental charm and the sweetest German accent to the role of Remarque. He subtly shows us the pain in his voice and eyes which his passion brings him without ever abandoning the smooth facade with which Remarque presents himself. Ylfa Edelstein fully conveys the reserved, mysterious-appearing seductive beauty of the silver screen Dietrich. This is, believably, a Dietrich whose screen persona accompanied her through her private relationships.

Christopher Vettel is quite a pleasure as he successfully walks a very thin tightrope in recreating the distinctive voice and "ah, sucks" speech pattern and gestures of the real Jimmy Stewart while providing a dramatic persona which goes beyond being a mere impression. He also briefly plays an immigration officer. Natalie Wilder plays three featured roles, carving out distinct portrayals for Paulette Goddard, Jutta (Remarque's first wife) and Gloria (Stewart's wife).

A glamorous bedroom and sitting room set (Jessica Parks) with built-in art deco style lighting effects (Jill Nagle) serves for Puma's various locales. It simultaneously provides a sense of Hollywood and high style European glamour which enhances the production.

Remarque and Dietrich provide one another "schmootz"—scandalous stories about celebrities of the day—but Pima is not "schmootz". It is a stylish and sensitive account of the painful complexities of freewheeling, glamorous lives.

Puma continues performances (Evenings: Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday 3 pm; Sunday 2 pm) through April 3, 2011 at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740; box office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.

Puma by Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans; directed by SuzAnne Barabas

Cast
Erich Maria Remarque....................John FitzGibbon
Marlene Dietrich..................................Elfa Edelstein
James Stewart, Officer.................Christopher Vettel
Paulette Goddard, Jutta. Gloria...........Natalie Wilder


Photo: SuzAnne Barabas


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- Bob Rendell



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