Theater Reviews

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Venue: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York (Through Nov. 23)

A textbook example of how not to transfer a property from screen to stage, the Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway production of "To Be or Not to Be" should simply not have been. This woeful theatrical version of Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 film classic doesn't begin to conjure up the magic of the original or even the far lesser Mel Brooks remake.

Playwright Nick Whitby's adaptation is faithful to a fault in its handling of the story line involving a ragtag Warsaw theatrical troupe struggling to survive after the German occupation. Headed by hambone lead actor Josef and his diva actress wife, Maria (David Rasche and Jan Maxwell in the roles immortalized by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard in her last screen appearance), the company finds itself -- at the instigation of Maria's fighter pilot lover (Steve Kazee) -- involved in a complicated plot involving Nazi spies.

Unfortunately, what worked so brilliantly onscreen in the hands of master farceur Lubitsch is hopelessly unfunny thanks to Whitby's witless script (did he actually expect to get laughs with jokes revolving around subjects like Victorian-era British playwright Arthur Wing Pinero?) and the leaden direction by Casey Nicholaw, the latter clearly hired for his far better work on such similarly broad shows as "The Drowsy Chaperone" and "Monty Python's Spamalot."

Rasche, who seems to be channeling Benny at times, and the always delicious Maxwell do their best to provide some comic sparks, but their efforts -- as well as those of a supporting cast that includes such stage comedy veterans as Peter Maloney, Michael McCarty, Kristine Nielsen and Rocco Sisto -- go for naught.

Presented by: the Manhattan Theatre Club by special arrangement with Bob Boyett, Roger Berlind and Neal Street Prods.
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.
Playwright: Nick Whitby.
Director: Casey Nicholaw.
Scenic design: Anna Louizos
Costume design: Gregg Barnes
Lighting design: Howell Binkley
Sound design: Darron W. West

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