Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 14, 2008
To Be or Not to Be by Nick Whitby. Based on the motion picture To Be or Not To Be. Directed by Casey Nicholaw. Scenic design by Anna Louizos. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Darron L. West. Projection design by Wendall and Zak. Hair design by Josh Marquette. Cast: Peter Benson, Robert Dorfman, Steve Kazee, Peter Maloney, Jan Maxwell, Michael McCarty, Kristine Nielsen, Brandon Perler, David Rasche, Rocco Sisto, Jimmy Smagula, Marina Squerciati.
So it’s easy to understand the immediate appeal of films like Mel Brooks’s 1968 The Producers or Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 To Be or Not To Be (or Brooks’s 1983 remake), which depict - in part or in whole - Nazis as the height of mockable buffoonery. But the stage demands an even more heightened, and more hilarious, outlook, as seen in Brooks’s own smash 2001 stage adaptation of The Producers, which catapulted its central “Springtime for Hitler” number and other scenes into the stratosphere of ridiculousness. Nick Whitby’s new stage version of To Be or Not To Be, at the newly rechristened Samuel J. Friedman (formerly the Biltmore), is considerably more earthbound.
This is not to say it isn’t funny. If its cast of well-tooled theatre types, headed by David Rasche and Jan Maxwell, doesn’t match those led by the irreplaceable duos of Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (in the first film) or Brooks and his real-life wife Anne Bancroft (in the second), these are nonetheless adroit comedians incapable of imparting a bad time. And the jokes that playwright Nick Whitby has retained for his adaptation from the 1942 screenplay are of the highest quality, guaranteeing that keeping a completely straight face is impossible.
And the premise remains legitimately brilliant, as a semiorganized Noises Off on the world stage. A troupe of renowned Polish actors become unwitting revolutionaries following the German invasion of Warsaw, led by their deep-fried-ham leading man, Joseph Tura (Rasche), and his vapid-glamour-girl wife Maria (Maxwell). A series of increasingly implausible ruses leads them not just to masquerading as, and in one case even murdering, Nazis, but even transforming their beloved theater into Gestapo headquarters. All while Maria struggles to choose between Joseph and a handsome young officer (Steve Kazee) who sneaks back to her dressing room for trysts during Joseph’s endless Hamlet soliloquies.
Casey Nicholaw’s production is attractively designed (with sets by Anna Louizos, costumes by Gregg Barnes, and lights by Howell Binkley), drily droll, and consistently amusing. But in its yawning gaps of pacing, which are frequently far enough removed from “breathless” as to be encased in an iron lung, it never lets you forget the cutting superiority of the movies, which are outstanding examples of sparkling, sophisticated low-minded comedy on a very high-minded subject. Nicholaw’s production wants to lull you gently to sleep; the movies wanted to kick you awake.
More important, they were unafraid of minimizing depictions of, and references to, Holocaust horrors, trusting their central satire to remain hysterical despite historical elisions. This apparently doesn’t fly in 2008: Whitby has literalized many events and greatly darkened the overall tone, emphasizing impending doom at the expense of the measured frivolity that has always been the originals’ most daring and endearing feature. Nearly all the elements that approached farce have vanished, especially in a newly conceived conclusion that’s more determined to convince us of the Nazi’s monstrousness than of the actors’ powers.
Does anyone attending a Broadway play in 2008 need to be reminded so directly that Nazis weren’t humanitarians? The additional time spent establishing this makes the once-natural fun so much harder for us to have and for the actors to create, that the surefire casting is only intermittently successful. Rasche brings a detached, overinflated self-worth to Joseph that spices up Whitby’s blander versions of his dress-up games. Maxwell is also pleasant as a Serious Actress with a fractured outlook on her role in the play of life, less sticky-sweet than bittersweet chocolate with a hint of bourbon. Neither, however, is allowed to be the one thing the property most demands: zany.
But excess is exactly what To Be or Not To Be needs to keep from getting too full of itself. The only remnant of the films’ anything-for-a-laugh doctrine is Michael McCarty’s performance as Colonel Erhard, the bloated and blustery control freak whose manipulations of both Joseph and Maria consume much of the second act. Erhard is at times legitimately threatening and at others as uncertain of his power as was Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes, but at every moment McCarty makes him a walking parody of authoritative gluttony, with a lumbering stride and flabbiness of personality that are by themselves a giddy condemnation of militaristic brutality.
At the other end of the spectrum, Rocco Sisto completely satisfies as he pushes the boundaries of seriousness as a Nazi operative investigating the Warsaw underground. The character used to be detestable at least partially because he allowed himself no access to even the fringes of comedy in the enjoyable world that surrounded him. But Whitby has made him one of multitudes of the morose: certainly no better than the heroes, but no worse either. Was this flattening - or any of the other examples of it - truly necessary to make a stage show of To Be or Not To Be? That, unfortunately, is this production’s most significant question.