If the producers of the walking corpse of a comedy “To Be or Not to Be” are feeling unappreciated this morning — and it’s a safe bet that they are — here’s a consoling thought for them. It took years for the Ernst Lubitsch film that inspired this play to get any respect. Greeted with sad critical head-shaking when it opened in 1942, Lubitsch’s bizarrely merry tale of a theater troupe in Nazi Poland is now considered a masterpiece of American cinematic farce.
To be honest, though, I can’t imagine many of us who attended the “To Be or Not to Be” that opened last night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater looking back in a couple of decades and thinking: “Doh! How could we have missed the greatness of it?” 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. (Remember “The Graduate”? Remember — ouch, ouch, ouch — “On the Waterfront”?) Like many of its screen-to-stage predecessors, this one feels like a faint, blotchy carbon of its prototype. And while I’m all for shows that give performers as talented as Ms. Maxwell and Mr. Rasche gainful employment, it hurts to see them squeezing themselves into shoes originally worn with devil-may-care comfort by Carole Lombard and Jack Benny. They are playing, by the way, the Lunt and Fontanne of Warsaw, Josef and Maria Tura.
You can sort of understand why somebody thought “To Be or Not to Be” (which was also re-made as a movie starring Mel Brooks in 1983) might be appropriate for the theater. The film, after all, is a valentine to the resourcefulness and spiritedness of actors.
The troupe in question here pulls together to put on a show that does nothing less than rout the Nazis and save the Warsaw underground! (Even those can-do baby thespians Mickey and Judy didn’t reach that high.)
Not a combination of ingredients easily mixed in 1942, when it felt entirely possible that Hitler might prevail. Critics wondered if the fabled “Lubitsch touch” hadn’t gone dead. “To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case,” Bosley Crowther wrote of the film in The New York Times. Life magazine marveled that “Hollywood could convert part of a world crisis into such a cops and robbers charade.”
But to watch the movie today is to recognize that the director’s touch was intact. The original “To Be or Not to Be” isn’t a clunky graveyard joke but a smooth, funny and often touching consideration of what happens to artists of make-believe when reality comes crashing in. (Let me add that I was appalled by the movie in my priggish adolescence in the 1970s; only as an adult have I come to cherish it.)
The Manhattan Theater Club version has the advantage of arriving at a time when Mr. Brooks, with his musical “The Producers,” has broken the taboo of Nazis as a subject for Broadway frivolity. (One regrets that, having done the movie remake of “To Be,” he didn’t readapt it as his next musical project, instead of “Young Frankenstein.”)
The current “To Be” has deemed it advisable to trim a couple of the more brazen concentration camp jokes from Edwin Justus Mayer’s screenplay for Lubitsch, though a line that particularly appalled folks in 1942 has been retained. (That’s when a German commandant says of Josef Tura’s portrayal of Hamlet, “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.”)
This show isn’t offensive, though; it’s just pale, flat and a bit desperate. As Josef, Maria and Dowasz (Peter Maloney), their avuncular director, set up a series of theatrical ruses to outwit an evil Nazi spy (Rocco Sisto) and dim-witted general (Michael McCarty), life starts to mirror art in unfortunate ways. It’s as if Mr. Nicholaw’s production had itself been assembled on the spot and in anxious haste.
The flats in Anna Louizos’s cardboard-cutout-like set tremble when the action becomes at all frisky. And most of the cast members give the impression of manufacturing characters and funny business as we watch them, as if Mr. Nicholaw (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) had said: “Do whatever it takes, kids. You’re on your own.”
For Mr. Rasche this translates into providing magnified variations on Jack Benny inflections and gestures, which are only occasionally funny. Ms. Maxwell, who brings individual wit to every role she plays (even the grotesque villainess in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”), alluringly fills the slinky gowns designed by Gregg Barnes. But her kittenish vulnerability here can read as too passive. I missed the pantherine self-assurance projected by Lombard in what turned out to be her last role. (She died in a plane crash only weeks after finishing “To Be or Not to Be.”)
Whether the show scales up or scales down elements from the movie (and mostly, it’s up), it never seems to get the proportions right. When most people speak of “the Lubitsch touch,” they mean his gift for innuendo that doesn’t poke the ribs. In the film of “To Be or Not to Be,” the best example comes when Lombard’s Maria widens her eyes appreciatively when a smitten young pilot, Sobinsky (Robert Stack in the movie, played here by Steve Kazee), tells her his plane can drop tons of explosives in less than a minute.
This production has Maria vibrating like a pneumatic drill in response to the same information. A video sequence soon follows with an airborne Maria and Sobinsky milking every ounce of double-entendre until the metaphor withers and dies. And, in a moment all too typical of this production, a feathery touch has become a life-draining stranglehold.