Sunday, October 19, 2008

Untouched by Lubitsch

To Be or Not to Be
Written by Nick Whitby
Directed by Casey Nicholaw
Starring David Rasche, Jan Maxwell, Peter Benson, Robert Dorfman, Steve Kazee, Peter Maloney, Michael McCarty, Kristine Nielsen, Brandon Perler, Rocco Sisto, Jimmy Smagula, Marina Squerciati

Performances September 16 to November 23, 2008
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
261 West 47th Street

Kazee, Maxwell and Nielsen in To Be or Not to Be
(photo: Joan Marcus)
A highly unnecessary adaptation is To Be or Not to Be, based on the classic 1942 movie directed by Ernest Lubitsch and starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny. Nick Whitby’s stage version uses the film’s plot–a Polish theatrical troupe fights the Nazis by becoming spies–yet never approaches Lubitsch’s, Lombard’s and Benny’s genius, al solely missing. In this staging by director Casey Nicholaw, what works onscreen always seems slightly off onstage, with many of the jokes telegraphed ahead of time, so when they do hit, they hit with a thud rather than a bull’s-eye.

Nicholaw attempts directorial fanciness to deflect the focus from the comically creaky goings-on. Notably, there are several interludes of World War II newsreel footage is projected onto the stage curtain during scene changes: while this does remind us what’s happening outside this Polish theater, showing real atrocities to “set up” these black-comic travails is questionable at best.

The curtains themselves slide across the stage during scene changes, allowing more extraneous business like actors wandering in front of the curtains or walking through doors that are also being moved–although keeping things moving briskly, none of this compensates for the creaky material that otherwise crawls past for two hours.

A talented troupe of actors does its level best to keep the comedy afloat, with varying results. In the lead roles, Jan Maxwell is glamorous enough to stand comparison with Carole Lombard, and her glorious comic timing snares its share of laughs. However, David Rasche, fails to compete with Benny’s brilliance: this usually excellent actor is at sea throughout, trading his usual impressive wit and stage presence–seen recently to great advantage in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Regrets Only and Moonlight and Magnolias–for unabashed clowning and brazen hamming, which seems a desperate try to wring some humor out of mediocre material..

The production looks splendid, as Gregg Barnes’ costumes and Anna Louizos’ sets evoke an only slightly exaggerated version of 1939 Poland. Too bad that this combination of Nazi black comedy and paean to the theater is otherwise so tame and ineffectual.

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