Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Answering The Critical Question Of To Be Or Not To Be

Answering The Critical Question Of To Be Or Not To Be

Last evening, To Be Or Not To Be -- Nick Whitby's adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch's satirical 1942 film -- opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (formerly the Biltmore). Helmed by Casey Nicholaw, the comedy stars David Rasche, and Jan Maxwell, along with Peter Benson, Robert Dorfman, Steve Kazee, Peter Maloney, Michael McCarty, Kristine Nielsen, Brandon Perler, Rocco Sisto, Jimmy Smagula and Marina Squerciati.

When answering the titular question, critics were largely saying, "No!"

Deadpanning that it's a "walking corpse of a comedy," The New York Times' Ben Brantley sniffs: "Chalk it up as the latest confirmation of the principle that a classic movie does not a classic play make.... 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."

Concluding that "we have endured far too many herring and hambone jokes to be manipulated," Newsday's Linda Winer offers a bit of a mixed assessment: "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."

Regretting this as a "nice idea, but at least in this clumsy attempt, it's not to be," Variety's David Rooney laments: "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. But the writing is so pedestrian it's hard to gauge whether more confident handling might have made a difference."

Noting that "most of the laughs seem lost in translation in the adaptation," Joe Dziemianowicz of New York's Daily News awards just two out of five stars: "The ingredients for comedy are in place -- a self-loving leading man, a flirty leading lady, backstage antics, espionage and impersonations. The show is hobbled by too many off-target jokes and off-putting pacing. The play should gallop, but the staging by Casey Nicholaw moves in sluggish fits and starts.... Rasche ... makes a suitably egotistical Josef, a ham down to the bone.... Maxwell, in Lombard tresses and clingy dresses, performs with signature panache."

New York Post's Clive Barnes is back with a vengeancem, along with a one-half star rating: "To Be or Not To Be is 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 cast -- including Michael McCarty, Kristine Nielsen, Peter Maloney and Rocco Sisto -- do their best to lighten the Stygian gloom cast on everything by Casey Nicholaw's ditch-water dull direction."

I'll be taking in this limited run over the next few days and will weigh in shortly thereafter. But for the time being, it sounds like this production was not meant to be.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 15 October, 2008, Blogger Aaron Riccio said...

Seriously, it's god-awful.

At 15 October, 2008, Blogger Joseph Gomez said...

You've been tagged.

At 15 October, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Aaron, Why am I such a glutton for punishment? Just like when I took in Gone With The Wind earlier this year, the reviews are making me salivate!

Joseph, Thanks for the tag. I've passed it on.


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