Wednesday, October 15, 2008

To Be or Not To Be


By Nick Whitby. Dir. Casey Nicholaw. Manhattan Theatre Club at the Friedman Theatre. (CLOSED).

Manhattan Theatre Club's stage adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch's WWII classic garners some of the season's harshest reviews yet. Some critics were mildly amused, and most acknowledged the heroic efforts of lead actors David Rasche and Jan Maxwell, the supporting cast, and the designers. The catcalls outweighed the accolades, though, and most were reserved for Nick Whitby's adaptation and Casey Nicholaw's direction.

Philadelphia Inquirer B
(Howard Shapiro) Funny as it is, I couldn't help wondering if the question in To Be or Not to Be is: Is that all there is? The possibilities that we care about its characters, or their growing plights that come from capers of their own devising, diminish as the play progresses. Maybe it's that the comedy is set against the horrible sweep of Nazi Germany and - well, there seems to be a lot more to worry about than these misguided actors.

Hartford Courant B
(Malcolm Johnson) - To Be Or Not To Be, filmed twice, now reaches the Broadway stage as overwrought farce, entertaining, but sometimes off-putting...All of this makes for an enjoyable evening, though not always as funny as Nicholaw obviously hopes. But then again, that was also true of the overrated Drowsy Chaperone.

Talkin' Broadway B-
(Matthew Murray) Casey Nicholaw's production is attractively designed...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...Whitby has literalized many events and greatly darkened the overall tone.

(Michael Kuchwara) A wan if sporadically amusing adaptation of the classic Ernst Lubitsch film comedy, this lavish show...has stymied a lot of talented people. Among those at sea: director Casey Nicholaw and a whole passel of fine actors including David Rasche and Jan Maxwell. Everyone works very hard, especially set designer Anna Louizos whose swirling stage curtain is put to furious use separating the play's many quick-changing scenes.

Newsday C-
(Linda Winer) Nick Whitby's new play...has neither the macabre courage of the original nor the singular Mel-ness of the redo. What Casey Nicholaw's production does have is a cast, headed by Jan Maxwell and David Rasche, forced to work way too hard to find a twinkle of charm, much less hilarity and heartache, in this return to this odd trifle-within-a-tragedy.

Bloomberg News C-
(Jeremy Gerard) What we get is not only a script with a split personality, but a cast with multiple personality disorder and an unsettling hash of a show. When a Jewish member of the troupe is hauled away to certain death, leaving his son to carry on the tradition, we don't know whether to weep or to walk out of the show to protest such crass manipulation.

DC Theatre Scene
(Richard Seff) Think "high school dramatic society", and you've found the level of sophistication and know how in this Manhattan Theatre Club presentation on Broadway. A game cast, headed by the very affable David Rasche and Jan Maxwell, plays it for all it's worth, but all they can manage to draw from the audience are large smiles.

New York Times D
(Ben Brantley) As translated to the stage by the playwright Nick Whitby and the director Casey Nicholaw, with a heartbreakingly game cast led by David Rasche and Jan Maxwell, this Manhattan Theater Club production has the spring, color and freshness of long-refrigerated celery. Chalk it up as the latest confirmation of the principle that a classic movie does not a classic play make.

NJ Star-Ledger D
(Michael Sommers) Appropriate to a show with a World War II situation, the comedy bombs out. Although this fizzle is not so excruciating as Drowning Crow or stupid like Losing Louie, to name previous MTC Broadway misfires in recent years, the fatally dull To Be or Not To Be is anything but satisfying light entertainment.

Theatermania D
(David Finkle) While the supporting cast...does yeoman-like work, it doesn't help matters that director Casey Nicholaw often positions the players as if they're the unruly participants in a police line-up. Anna Louizos' sets, though period-evocative from scene to scene, are changed behind billowing curtains that often get in the way of the actors emoting downstage.

Back Stage D
(David Sheward) To Be or Not to Be literally plunks the screenplay down onstage and falls flat...Whitby hasn't deepened the characters or given us a reason to care about what happens to them...It doesn't help that David Rasche in the leading role appears to be doing an imitation of Benny instead of creating a characterization of his own. Jan Maxwell fares better in the Lombard part, but even this sterling performer can't get beyond the memory of her role's originator.

amNew York D
(Matt Windman) The blame for this fiasco lies in Nick Whitby's stale and utterly misguided adaptation, which mechanically reproduces scenes from the original film while adding awkward, uninspired plot twists...Thank goodness for Jan Maxwell, who provides a zestful physical comedy presence as Maria Tura...You will be much better served in both time and money by renting the 1942 film.

Theater News Online D
(Bill Stevenson) Rent the DVD instead. Despite a cast headed by the usually reliable David Rasche and Jan Maxwell, this Manhattan Theatre Club production fizzles when it should fizz...The overall listlessness primarily stems from Whitby's script, but Casey Nicholaw's uninspired direction doesn't help.

The Hollywood Reporter
(Frank Scheck) A textbook example of how not to transfer a property from screen to stage. 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...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...go for naught.

Daily News D-

(Joe Dziemianowicz) Unfortunately, most of the laughs seem lost in translation in the adaptation by British playwright Nick Whitby. Though the play strives to be fluffy, it's about as airy as cement pierogi - and a late turn toward heart-tugging feels tacked on...The play should gallop, but the staging by Casey Nicholaw (The Drowsy Chaperone) moves in sluggish fits and starts.

Curtain Up D-
(Elyse Sommer) Poor Jan Maxwell! This wonderful actress seems doomed to stumble into plays not worthy of her, both on Broadwa [sic] and off...Being bewigged...and outfitted in slinky make her look like the Carole Lombard, the original Maria Turo [sic], is likely to remind theater goers that they could see the real Lombard and the superior film as a golden oldie rental, instead of spending upwards of $100 for this live --but just barely so-- reincarnation.

NY Post F
(Clive Barnes) A shabby little play. It bears the marks of most bad comedies - it's not funny, and it's incomprehensible....David Rasche as Tura and, especially, Jan Maxwell as his wife are both good, but certainly no patch on Benny, with his double-takes, or Lombard, with her voluptuousness. Most of the supporting their best to lighten the Stygian gloom cast on everything by Casey Nicholaw's ditch-water dull direction.

North Jersey Record F
(Robert Feldberg) [A] shabby, pinched little production, which has more than a whiff of summer stock...Dramatically, and often comically, the script is flatter than a pancake, with many of the movie's most memorable scenes either reduced to exposition or simply botched...Sometimes, it seems that director Casey Nicholaw, who did the witty and imaginative Drowsy Chaperone, is just trying to get the actors through the evening. The staging has little drive, and there's no real sense of fun.

Variety F
(David Rooney) Theatricalization of film properties requires, at the very least, freshness of vision, if not of structural conception. Whitby's inert reworking of Edwin Justus Mayer's screenplay for the Lubitsch movie simply slaps it onstage, with embellishments that add nothing and supposed expedients that slow things down. Part of the blame has to go to director Casey Nicholaw's poor feel for pacing, flow and transitions, resulting in a production with the lumpy sluggishness of a fatigued road show...You can almost hear Lubitsch stifling a yawn from his grave.

Village Voice F
(Michael Feingold) You can't ignore the tech effects in Manhattan Theatre Club's sad attempt to put up a stage version of Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 film To Be or Not to Be: The humanity that should offset them is almost too pallid and purposeless to be noticeable. I don't mean the actors, who seem to be really nice people trying their best against insuperable odds, but the humanity of the whole event. The production's overriding motive seems to have been to make money off a famous title formerly attached to somebody else's carefully crafted work.

Wall Street Journal F
(Terry Teachout) Whitby's adaptation, which takes the script of the 1942 film, pumps it full of new punch lines and tacks on a semiserious ending, makes no sense at all -- not least because none of Mr. Whitby's jokes are even slightly funny. The results are disastrous to behold.

Time Out NY F
(David Cote) This straight-to-community-theater dud is the latest example of Manhattan Theatre Club trying to charm its subscribers with a familiar antique property. Like the Ernst Lubitsch movie that inspired it, the play tries to balance human drama, farce, social commentary, and flashes of glamour and wit. Lubitsch managed the complex waltz; this team goose-steps with all left feet.

Philadelphia Inquirer B 10; Hartford Courant B 10; Talkin' Broadway B- 9; AP C 7; Newsday C- 6; Bloomberg News C- 6; DC Theatre Scene D+ 5; NY Times D 4; NJ Star-Ledger D 4; Theatermania D 4; Back Stage D 4; amNew York D 4; Theater News Online D 4; Hollywood Reporter D- 3; Daily News D- 3; Curtain Up D- 3; NY Post F 1; NJ Record F 1; Variety F 1; Wall Street Journal F 1; Time Out NY F 1; Village Voice F 1; TOTAL: 92 / 22 = 4.1 (D)

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