Seen on Broadway: Critics felt that the famous “touch” of Ernst Lubitsch, known for cinematic soufflés like Trouble in Paradise and The Shop Around the Corner, had gone flat with the cruder World War II farce To Be or Not To Be (1942). But its topicality, and engaging performances by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (her last role) as squabbling husband and wife members of a Polish theatrical troupe caught up in Nazi intrigue, have earned it cult status. A 1983 remake earned Charles Durning an Oscar nomination as the jowly villain “Concentration Camp” Ehrhardt, but is otherwise unnecessary, though it does have husband and wife stars Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft singing “Sweet Georgia Brown” in Polish. Not content to leave well enough alone, the Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC) has unveiled a theatrical version that is equally useless, and has no saving graces to speak of. The Benny-Brooks role, an egotistical ham nudged toward heroism, is passably imitated by David Rasche, a much more inventive comedian with better material; Jan Maxwell is acceptably funny as his straying better half, yet no threat to memories of the movie stars.
The MTC may have been angling for an old-movie hit along the lines of The 39 Steps, but the spirit of invention is completely absent from playwright Nick Whitby’s adaptation. Joylessly it sticks to the plot and adds a few vulgarities; the few laughs are straight from the film’s spy-and-disguise antics. (Hiring someone British, like the creators of the superior Steps, to do the job was no guarantee of success.) A comedy about a second-rate company needs a crackling first-rate production to put it across; this one is at best third-rate. Director Casey Nicholaw has the nimble Drowsy Chaperone to his credit—To Be or Not To Be is simply drowsy, galumphing at an irritatingly slow pace, and I’ve never seen a theatre as empty as the Friedman (formerly the Biltmore) when the second act began, the audience having scattered at intermission. This new play feels like something revived a hundred times before, each time more indifferently. The curtain moves faster than the action.
And Anna Louizos’ trademark busy sets require the curtain to move a lot. The different period environments, ranging from a ramshackle backstage to Gestapo headquarters, are handsomely detailed but clearly cumbersome to get on and off—at least one sequence was shorter, or at least seemed shorter, than the whisking of the curtain needed to conceal the changeover. Disastrously, its billowing folds have been used as a projection surface: “Wendall and Zak,” a team at least as good as Benny and Lombard or Brooks and Bancroft, has been ill-served, with the clever, black-and-white, newsreel-ish work of Harrington and Borovay frequently obscured. Howell Binkley’s misty lighting and Darron L. West’s workmanlike sound design give the piece the illusion of mood, with only Gregg Barnes’ attractive costumes registering as a period piece by way of the old Fox backlot. To be or not to be? Alas for all concerned, not to be.
Scenery: Global Scenic Services
Lighting: PRG Lighting
Audio: Masque Sound
Projection: Scharff Weisberg, Inc.