If your clients love old movies, they might be intrigued in Nick Whitby’s stage adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 classic satire "To Be or Not To Be" currently running at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. That Jack Benny/Carole Lombard gem (written by Melchior Lengyel, Edwin Justus Mayer and Lubitsch himself) is a brilliant example of wringing laughter from drama, and fans of the golden age of the silver screen would understandably want to see this memorable classic about the stage on the stage.
But please, steer them clear, for their own sake. While the movie is hilarious, the stage adaptation is merely a pale imitation of its source material.
Most of the blame needs to fall of Whitby’s shoulders, and on director Casey Nicholaw. The script meanders and stumbles through the clever storyline (a group of actors in occupied Warsaw outwit Nazis with their theatrical talents; hilarity ensues. No, really!), needlessly adding subplots and shtick that bring both the comedy and the drama to a screeching halt. Nicholaw, who directed the hilarious "The Drowsy Chaperone" a few seasons back, hasn’t infused this sophomore effort with nearly as much energy and wit as his previous work featured. There are some laughs in the comedy, but nothing lingers. By the time your clients have returned home, they will probably have forgotten much about the show. It’s hardly worth their time, or a $96.50 price tag per seat.
The cast is largely fine, if not particularly memorable (there is an old adage about making silk purses from sows’ ears). Tony-nominee Jan Maxwell, as ever, is a standout, making the role of Maria Tura her own if not erasing the memory of Lombard. David Rasche is appropriately hammy as her egocentric husband, but denied much of the opportunities that can make the role so rich, he becomes little more than a buffoon. Anna Louizos’ scenic design and Gregg Barnes’ costume designs are pretty, and nicely conjure the time and place, but are nothing particularly memorable.
What makes this even more depressing is how brilliant the show could have been. The original film, and its 1983 Mel Brooks remake, is a Valentine’s candygram to the stage, and to the ingenuity of theatrical people. This production seems to have eaten all of the chocolates and left us with an empty box.
Photo by Joan Marcus