In the second half of this show, Sian Phillips as Marlene Dietrich sings deliciously "The Laziest Girl in Town." But by then, we know that this title belongs neither to Phillips nor to Dietrich but to the writer, Pam Gems.
Gems has written good biographical plays on Edith Piaf and the painter Stanley Spencer. "Marlene," however, is hardly written at all.
It's hard, of course, for any writer to get under Dietrich's pale and ageless skin. She spent her life, after all, creating an alluring enigma.
She was both mannish and impossibly womanly. An anti-Nazi who indulged, privately, in anti-Semitic and racist insults.
A "traitor" to Germany in the Second World War who remained utterly German. A great star who churned out some terrible movies.
These contradictions should whet the appetite of any decent dramatist. But Gems seems so full of trite conclusions that she has no room for exploration.
The cliches about the price of fame come thick and fast. Until the last half-hour, when Phillips finally gets to perform, everything else is thin and slow.
"Marlene" is set around a show that Dietrich gave in Paris in 1969, part of the apparently endless world tour she milked for money and adoration.
Most of the action is set backstage, as Marlene swings from busy housewife, washing the floors and sewing buttons, to starry tantrums. Names like Churchill, Hemingway and Coward drop like sequins from a glittery dress. Awkward devices voiceovers, back projections, an interview fill in the broad details of her life. In perhaps the most unrewarding roles on Broadway, Margaret Whitton plays her American assistant and Mary Diveny her mute servant. Instead of opening up the drama, they exist only to push along the creaking mechanics of what passes for a plot.
The real shame, though, is that Phillips is magnificent. She creates an illusion that is much more than a mere impersonation.
Her physical resemblance to Marlene is indeed remarkable. And she has that throaty voice that seems to emerge from a deep pit of bitter experience a hundred yards below her feet.
But it's only toward the end, when she gets to re-create some of Dietrich's show, that she can shake herself free of the surrounding dullness. Then, all too briefly, the impersonation becomes a vibrant creation.
When Dietrich did her show in New York in 1975, Kenneth Tynan described her as showing herself to the audience like a priest shows the Host to the congregation at Mass. Phillips creates the same effect.
When she sings "Lili Marlene," she gives us a much better sense of Dietrich's complex feelings about Germany than anything in Gems' script has done.
When she asks in song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," you know, in a way that nothing in the script has revealed, that she knows the answer. You get a real glimpse of the torment of war through which Marlene lived.
Sadly, this much more powerful drama is over almost before it has begun. Instead of re-creating the star at her best, Phillips' "Marlene" mirrors all too accurately her worst days in Hollywood a great star saddled with a bum script.
Celebrity-impersonation plays generally run to form. On a day late in her (rarely his) career, the person is stimulated by a crisis to bouts of retrospection about the triumphs and tragedies of a long career; at the end the aging figure decides gamely to carry on. Full of name-dropping, gossip and glamour, these works are to real plays as "Entertainment Tonight" is to, say, "I, Claudius."
Recent subjects of such treatment have been Diana Vreeland, Isak Dinesen, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas. Now comes "Marlene," written in 1996 by Pam Gems, author of the earlier example, "Piaf," and docked at the Cort after a long tour.
"Marlene" follows the formulas pretty closely. We're backstage at a theater in Paris in 1969, as Dietrich prepares for opening night on the last of the concert tours that occupied her last public years. The gruff-voiced lisping diva, who would have been 68 at the time, calms her nerves by cleaning, kneeling on a sable coat to scrub the floor. She swigs liquor but shuns tranquilizers because of her damaged legs. She abuses her new assistant - a young female playwright (an embarrassing Margaret Wheaten) with a weepy crush on the icon - and her old dresser (Mary Diveny in a truly thankless part), who has been mute "since Dachau." She rifles through telegrams from Picasso, Pompidou, Princess Grace, Jean Gabin; she reminisces about Ike and Hemingway ("libewating the Witz Hotel" in 1944) and Sinatra; she dishes Garbo and gives a cheery interview to the Times; she dictates every last detail of the show, down to the spontaneous presentation of flowers at the close. She's a monster, but it's all OK because she's ... well, Dietrich.
Writer Gems attempts to pump up all this trivia with injections of political seriousness. Dietrich outspokenly loathed the Nazis, entertained Allied troops and got a chilly reception in her native land after the war. It all took guts and was doubtless the real Dietrich's finest moral hour, but do such things as death-camp slides and statements about how "we're all implicated" have any place in a cotton-candy confection like this?
Sian Phillips, so memorable as the treacherous, poison-happy Empress Livia in "I, Claudius," hasn't Dietrich's features by a long shot, but she has a good figure and she has a clever voice and she has attitude. On a stage, the ability to project the arrogance of beauty is more important than the actual thing. When Phillips is having fun with the Dietrich lisp and the Dietrich tics, she's richly enjoyable. When she has to recite - and chooses to overact - Gems' heavy-breathing soliloquies about Germany and Hollywood, she's a bore.
"Marlene" does have a final ace to play - a seven-song Dietrich concert. Dolled up like Dietrich in a gown made of crystal beads that seem to offer glimpses of flesh and wielding a long-trained coat of white ostrich feathers, Phillips makes a mini-drama of each song. Like Dietrich, but with greater clarity, Phillips doesn't so much sing the songs as bark them melodiously. (She has earlier sung some material quietly backstage, as when she croons "I Wish You Love" to a photo of Hemingway, but it's maudlin and ineffective.)
The most striking of the renditions are "Lili Marlene," sung so often to sad-eyed G.I.s, and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," the anti-war anthem she used (though it goes unmentioned here) as a Vietnam protest. In these songs, Dietrich's bravery and Phillips' artistry merge and thrill.
The unspoken assumption in "Marlene" is that Dietrich's concerts were her supreme achievements. Nonsense. Stay home and rent, say, the Dietrich/von Sternberg "Scarlet Empress" from 1934. Now there's artistry worth worshipping.
''Kitsch!'' growled the voice of Marlene Dietrich, again and again, in Maximilian Schell's 1984 documentary about her life. The screen goddess, by then reclusive, whose octogenarian self was never seen but was very much heard in the film, applied the German word to anything she regarded as cheaply sentimental. This ranged from undue attachments to countries to the famous scene in her 1931 film ''Dishonored'' in which she coolly applied lipstick before being executed by a firing squad.
It seems likely that had Dietrich been alive to see the show about her that opened last night at the Cort Theater, titled (like Mr. Schell's documentary) ''Marlene,'' the word ''kitsch'' would have shot once more from her lips.
This self-described ''musical play'' by Pam Gems, which stars the commanding Welsh actress Sian Phillips looking like a cryonic version of the title character, portrays a woman who definitely didn't stint on sentimentality. Set backstage and onstage during a concert appearance by Dietrich in Paris in 1969, the evening finds the most self-contained of Hollywood's sirens in a state of emotional thaw, lamenting the steep price of being eternally glamorous and exhuming glorious memories with a catch in her throat.
Tough and imperious this Dietrich may be, but when she finds a photograph of her late friend Ernest Hemingway, she can't resist clutching it to her breast and singing, in a tremulous voice, ''I wish you bluebirds in the spring.'' It should be noted that when Ms. Phillips sings, she does indeed capture, with uncanny precision, the husky cello voice that was distinctively Dietrich's. Ms. Gems's script, on the other hand, turns its subject into what has become a tiringly familiar type on the New York stage: the suffering sacred monster.
This theater of dead celebrities has flourished in recent years, with varyingly successful portraits of Maria Callas (''Master Class''), Lillian Hellman (''Cakewalk''), Diana Vreeland (''Full Gallop'') and Jacqueline Onassis (''Jackie''). The shows, which peddle tabloid prurience with a cultural sheen, are notable for allowing female performers to reclaim the art of female impersonation.
Whether flip (''Jackie'') or earnest (''Master Class''), such works usually focus on the personal agony behind the ecstatically glossy image, while dropping lots of famous names and the sort of dishy epigrams that drag queens have always thrived on. The plays often resemble those National Enquirer photographs of famous, beautiful people frozen in moments of unflattering disarray, pictures that promise that stars are as prone as anyone to heartbreak and bad hair days.
''Marlene,'' directed by Sean Mathias, is thuddingly true to this genre. While it incorporates numerous idiosyncratic details from biographies of Dietrich, the play flattens them into the sorts of cliches that Jacqueline Susann used to flesh out her icon-in-winter characters. The show is by far most interesting when Ms. Phillips simply does Dietrich the concert performer in the second act. But the work registers as mechanical throughout, and for a study in gallantry and glamour under siege, it is surprisingly unmoving.
''Marlene,'' which began its life in England three years ago, finds its touring title character, then in her late 60's, in her dressing room, trying to summon the energy to dazzle yet another audience. She is accompanied by her mute dresser, Mutti (Mary Diveny), a concentration camp survivor, and Vivian (Margaret Whitton), a young American playwright with a crush on the star who has arrived to help her idol and sometime lover ''get this face on the road,'' as Dietrich puts it, one more time.
As Dietrich consults her mirror, checks her memory and gives an interview to an unseen reporter, the audience is shown assorted faces of Marlene. There's Marlene the image-making perfectionist, who gives comically precise instructions on the flowers (which she has ordered) to be presented during her curtain calls; Marlene the compulsive hausfrau, who scrubs her dressing room floors kneeling on her mink coat; Marlene the good friend, who has homeopathic medicine sent to Georges Pompidou, and Marlene the catty wit, who dismisses a dreary offering of flowers by saying: ''I'm not dead yet. They can send it to Bette Davis.''
This Marlene is also given to tender reminiscence, temperamental tantrums and crippling bouts of fear. ''I am Marlene, Marlene, Marlene,'' she chants, fists clenched like a tennis player before a break point. She slugs down the booze but holds off on the tranquilizers. Ms. Gems, a veteran of biodrama (''Piaf,'' ''Stanley'',) has crammed all this in with dutiful, checklist perfunctoriness, and it is hard for Ms. Phillips or Mr. Mathias to generate a natural flow.
At moments, the transitions can seem grotesque, as when Marlene vacillates abruptly between grande dame tyranny and little girl terror. But Ms. Phillips, best known here for her deliciously evil turn in the mini-series of ''I, Claudius,'' keeps her dignity and mostly resists playing for camp.
Unfortunately, in seeking to expose the woman behind the artificial persona, the play has substituted an equally artificial, and far less compelling, construct. Ms. Phillips occasionally brings an amusingly wry world-weariness to her lines, as when Vivian tells Marlene she loves her and Marlene answers, ''You and the world, baby.'' But she is largely a prisoner in a soap opera, except when she is singing, and sometimes even then.
Dietrich fanatics will presumably focus on more important things, like the meticulous re-creation of the fabled ''nude'' beaded concert gown by Jean Louis, here rendered by Terry Parsons. Ms. Phillips wears that dress with authority, while subtly suggesting the discomfort of the aging body beneath it. And yes, awash in Mark Jonathan's cheekbone-conscious lighting, singing Dietrich standards like ''Lili Marlene'' and ''Falling in Love Again,'' she looks (especially in profile) and sounds enough like the real thing to give you the willies.
What she doesn't project is the layered, exquisitely mannered irony with which Dietrich always presented herself. It's not that the surface is markedly different from what you see in films of Dietrich in concert. But there is little of that provocative, quizzical tension between surface and subtext.
There is a difference between impersonation and interpretation, and only the latter can illuminate. Ms. Phillips, though her skills of replication are formidable, remains largely an impersonator here. You end the evening thinking that as long as there are shows like ''Marlene,'' opening a Madame Tussaud's in Times Square would be superfluous.
Rabid Dietrich devotees had better rush on down to the Cort Theater if they want to see Sian Phillips' fairly convincing impersonation of the showbiz legend in Pam Gems' "Marlene." For Phillips probably won't be croaking out "Honeysuckle Wose" for long: The show surrounding her eerie impression is staggeringly inept, often incoherent and always dull. It must have been a stowaway on the ship that brought in this season's other, far more accomplished imports from London.
With her taut, milk-white skin clinging to glass-cutting cheekbones, and a figure that looks suitably statuesque in the famous flesh-colored, beaded gown of Dietrich's concert years, Phillips does indeed look strikingly like the late-period Marlene represented in the play. And she's got Dietrich's husky bleat of a singing voice down pat.
But so what? So did a drag queen I once saw named Lola-Lola-Lola, and he didn't charge Broadway prices for his "Vie en Rose." Without a workable vehicle to support Phillips' faux-Marlene, the actress is lost. It's a sad Broadway stumble for a performer with a long and distinguished career in the U.K.
Gems' scattered script finds Dietrich backstage at a Paris concert in 1969, accompanied by her friend Vivian (poor Margaret Whitton!), apparently a playwright who's moonlighting as Marlene's lapdog. Vivian scurries around attending to madame's whims and setting up her wan wisecracks while the play's third character, a mute called Mutti (I kid you not), skulks in the shadows with a sad scowl on her face like some bizarre, Beckettian figure.
Mutti is a survivor of Dachau, we eventually learn, and indeed from the way Gems' play posits World War II as the dominating factor in the consciousness of the '69 Marlene, you'd think Dietrich had personally fought and won the war, and, herself, liberated the concentration camps, to boot.
But at least the monologues about the trauma of the war and Dietrich's decision to abandon allegiance to her homeland have some shape and interest.
The rest of the play is a bizarre, meandering concoction of bitchy or reverent showbiz anecdotes and pathetically tired musings on love and the cinematic art ("If the camera loves you, you are a star!"), with the occasional bout of lesbian innuendo and/or stage fright thrown in to heighten the drama.
It's often hard to tell what the woman is going on about, and harder still to care. (Gems' last Broadway bio-play, "Stanley," was a far better piece of writing.)
Sean Mathias directed Phillips and her fellow (and rather more fortunate) Broadway visitor Judi Dench in a scintillating "A Little Night Music" at the U.K.'s National Theater, and he also helmed Broadway's smart and stylish "Indiscretions" a few seasons back.
But his work here is almost as clumsy as Gems' play. The supporting characters wander about the stage awkwardly; a pointless New York Times interview sequence is badly handled. Most crucially, there's no punctuation or emotional coherence to Phillips' performance, though it would admittedly be hard to find any in Gems' skin-deep text.
The final third of the show is a concert, with Phillips-as-Dietrich performing songs from the star's novel repertoire: Cole Porter's "The Laziest Gal in Town," "Falling in Love Again," "The Boys in the Back Room," etc. And yes, Phillips sounds uncannily like the original.
But people didn't flock to Dietrich's concerts to hear her distinctively bad singing, but simply to bask in her aura. Obviously, Phillips can't replicate the aura, so the allure of the vocalizing is lost; it's just distinctively bad singing.
And yet, at least it's distinctive; the rest of this sub-par camp spectacle doesn't even manage that. The icon-worshipping audience may turn out to see "Marlene" -- a reference to Juliette Greco (?) got a lone, knowing cackle from the balcony -- but even the boys in the back room may find this diva trip not worth the price of a ticket.