AISLE SAY New York

TO BE OR NOT TO BE

by Nick Whitby
Based on the film directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer
from a story by Melchoir Lengyel and Ernst Lubitsch
Starring David Rasche and Jan Maxwell
Directed by Casey Nicholaw
A Production of the Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, West 47th Street
www.mtc-nyc.org/current-season/tbontb/index.htm

Reviewed by David Spencer

I’ve always had a great and abiding fondness for actor David Rasche (pronounced Rash-ee); he’s a big, handsome galoot who’s unafraid to be silly, and my antenna keeps picking up these great-to-work with vibes, from him and the productions in which he appears. But there’s something about him that has always stopped me short from raving about him. Partly it’s that, despite having a distinct persona, he’s never quite parlayed that into the incandescence of a real star: his work is clean, intelligent, efficient and likeable, but never, that I can recall, on stage or film, inspired. But partly it’s something else I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on—until now.

                  And I lead with that here because it’s not only at the heart of his limitations as a thespian…it’s at the heart of what’s amiss with the Manhattan Theatre Club’s world premiere stage adaptation of the 1942 film comedy To Be or Not to Be by Nick Whitby (based on the unconscionably uncredited screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer from a screenstory by Melchoir Lengyel and the film’s director Ernst Lubitsch).

                  The story is set in Warsaw, Poland during World War II, on the cusp of war with the invading Germans. We’re watching the Bronnski theatre company put on a satirical play (called A Gift from Hitler). We meet the members of the company, Grumberg, an inveterate comic (Robert Dorfman); Sobinsky, an all-purpose support man (Steve Kazee); the ingenue Eva (“fainting is my specialty”) (Marina Squerciati); Anna, the matronly costumer who knows all the dish (Kristine Nielsen); Dowasz, the dedicated and as often exasperated director (Peter Maloney); and above all, those who exasperate him most, the married middle-aged stars of the company: the ever-flirtatious Maria Tura (Jan Maxwell) and the self-absorbed grand emoter Josef Tura (Mr. Rasche). On the day of dress rehearsal, they learn from the official Office of the Censor that the times are too perilous to permit the performance of such a play as theirs, but even a quick change of plans to a hasty (but clearly oft-repeated) Hamlet doesn’t change the danger they’re in from Gestapo agents and officials looking for political and ethnic scapegoats. These rogues include a Nazi agent named Professor Silewski (Rocco Sisto) and a fat, fatuous colonel named Erhard (Michael McCarty). Before long, the Bronski becomes the lynchpin to thwarting the efforts of the Nazis to crack the Polish underground, once Warsaw is occupied. Among other devices, the plot utilizes fake beards, assumed identities, suspicions of adultery, and an ineptly disposed dead body.

                  At the time of the source film’s release, WWII had three years yet to go, and the Nazi threat was a melodrama woven between the scenes of “softer” comedy, played with an almost naturalistic tone, by cast toplining Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (who had perished in an airplane crash just prior to its release). If the story sounds familiar to those of you not having seen the Ernst Lubitsch original, you may have seen the likewise excellent 1983 remake, produced by and starring (though not directed by) Mel Brooks, alongside his real-life wife, Anne Bancroft (director: Alan Johnson, with screenplay by Ronny Graham and Thomas Meehan). Faithful in many ways to the Lubitsch original, but somewhat daffier in tone, the gags more overt and Brooksian. Worth noting because the story is strong enough to withstand either approach.

                  But you have to commit to either naturalistic comedy or comic extravagance, and once you establish the permission, you have to follow through. Neither the alchemical mix of Nick Whitby’s new dialogue with the many lines preserved from the film; nor his ham-fisted theatrical reduction and re-structuring; nor (surprisingly) the direction of The Drowsy Chaperone’s Casey Nicholaw, give you the comfort level of “style assurance” at the top. Amiability, yes, but expert comedy chops, no. One in fact gets the impression of a “throwaway” or “filler” production for the Manhattan Theatre Club’s current Broadway season, treated more like a professional stock package than a Broadway debut, thrown together quickly and good-naturedly but without a lot of forethought or real passion. And there’s nothing so wrong with that kind of theatre, but it has no business demanding Broadway prices.

                  And as I say, it’s David Rasche who embodies the rootless mid ground that is nischta hin, nischta heir. And here’s how:

                  The character he’s playing is ultimately courageous, but the suspense the story generates comes in large measure from the fact that he’s such a narcissist as to be oblivious, at times, to anything but his performances and image as an actor; and oblivious as well to his own foibles and follies. In this respect Josef Tura is much like a number of other iconic characters that have entered the public consciousness, say Frank Drebin of Police Squad! as portrayed by Leslie Nielsen, or Maxwell Smart of Get Smart, as portrayed by Don Adams or Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther movies as played by Peter Sellers. (One could arguably add the likes of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, as played by Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, on The Honeymooners, and comedy teams such as Laurel and Hardy, or The Three Stooges, or the cousins Larry and Balki [Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot] on Perfect Strangers.) One of the things that makes us laugh most at these characters, that makes them both endearingly flawed and utterly human is their nearly-complete lack of objective self-consciousness. They simply can’t see themselves even close to “as they are.” Frank Drebin honestly believes he’s a competent, no-nonsense cop; Max Smart believes he’s got the cool spy thing down.

                  And the actors who play these roles—there’s a reason why I mentioned them all—internalize this unawareness. They are believable because you never catch them playing at being unaware; you never catch them posturing at being silly, or stupid, or clumsy, or bluffing for all they’re worth. They all find a way to make that behavior unforced, unaffected and genuine.

                  Not so Mr. Rasche.

                  He gestures grandly, to show that this guy overacts. He fumbles a cigarette when confronted my a government official who’s heard of his wife but not him. He makes a confused face and does “uneasy” body language business when he’s confused, stymied or potentially caught. All of which tells you that Rasche is supremely self-aware. It’s all what actors call “indicating,” which is to say, illustrating a state of being rather than just living it.

                  When you look, by contrast, at Jack Benny, playing the same role and many of the same scenes in the Lubitsch film, one of the things that strikes you almost immediately is how still he is. He doesn’t fumble anything when he realizes he’s not famous to anybody; he just says, “Oh,” with a little fall in his voice, as the balloon of expectation deflates. When he’s bluffing, he doesn’t indicate desperation—for surely, such indication would give away the game to the enemy—but rather sells his disguise even harder, trying to stretch a laugh of amusement until rescue or at least an answer comes.

                  Now, could Rasche deliver anything like that if properly directed? Having been a fan of his for years and watched him many times, I doubt it. He’s not an actor who believably sheds his intelligence (which is why, despite its cult following, the sitcom Sledge Hammer, in which he played a dopey cop who fancied himself a Dirty Harry type, was so short-lived; he could never make you forget it was pretend). So now the issue goes to why he was ever cast in the first place. The news stories (and the confidential sources) help with that: the more slyly funny Craig Bierko had originally been cast and even started rehearsals; but he found that Whitby's script was not sufficiently funny, and with Whitby unwilling  to up the octane on the joke meter (and possibly, in the dark night of his soul, afraid that he was unable, which tends to be why most unreasonable "rewrite-unwillingness" happens), Bierko booked. (And Brian Murray, originally cast as the director—the role was likely an offer taken sight unseen, under the mutual impression that he'd be somewhat revisiting his Noises Off persona, in which he famously played a harried director—upon seeing how marginal his role was, in relationship to his stature, left as well, though he left an easier hole to fill.) And indeed, the casting of Mr. Rasche in this part smacks of  reasons like “no one else was available in a hurry” to “we needed a chiseled-features star who could do comedy and he was the best out there at the time.” And unless you've lived through needing to replace an actor with the clock ticking, you can't imagine how good an expedient choice can look if he's even remotely in the ballpark. But the signing off on Mr. Rasche smacks a bit of what's called a "panic decision" too. And that's not a criticism—it takes almost inhuman vigilance to keep panic from feeding into the need for haste; right then the creative team was looking for a replacement for Craig Bierko.

                  But therein lies the problem.  Because they should have sought a replacement for Josef Tura. Who was played in films first by Jack Benny and later by Mel Brooks. Who is an even funnier character if he's not a matinee idol, but thinks he is. Or if his universe treats him like one but we know he really isn't (which doesn't involve miscasting if you can sell the dichotomy; Nathan Lane, for example, has been selling it for years). The tunnel thinking that prevented widening the field to include funny, charismatic actors who are neither classically handsome nor (in the real world) stars—for indeed, how many tickets would either the Mssrs. Bierko or Rasche sell without good reviews behind them?—is what seems to inform a lack of…I'm not quite sure what the most accurate word would be…Preparedness? Centeredness? Clarity?—in the conceptual thinking. And that goes, again, to the director. From this one wonders if it's possible too that none of those in charge quite understood what they were getting into with Whitby's adaptation of the screenplay. Had it been given a staged reading? Had it been properly heard by at least an invited audience in a studio room before it was put into rehearsal? Again—believe it or not—I don't mean this as a criticism. It's rather a lesson: Being vigilant about everything in advance is almost inhumanly hard; and when embarking on a project that "everyone" expects will be a simple lark, because the material has already proven its mettle in two fondly regarded films, it's even easy to forget that, with the alchemical transposition from film to stage, everything has to be re-examined. Creating a "lark" is not easy. (That's why A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum went through something like twelve drafts over the course of eight years, and still needed Jerome Robbins to step in out-of-town and demand a new opening number.) The other lesson is: No matter how smart you are, sometimes an idea that looks great on paper doesn't work in real life. Following Phillip Glennister's turn in the original UK version of Life on Mars, Colm Meany should have been a natural for the role of police chief Gene Hunt in the US remake; but if you saw the original pilot, he was abysmally bland, hence, now, Harvey Keitel. And after so brilliantly helming The Drowsy Chaperone, Casey Nicholaw would seem to have been a natural for To Be… and its comic archetypes. Both great, smart choices: I'd've endorsed them (if not made them) myself. And yet…

                  Insofar as the look and feel of the show, Mr. Nicholaw and his designers are in a good and solid place (in a nod to both era and style, they use in-one crossovers to mask scene changes, and moving curtains to create the effect of the cinematic “wipe”: the border of one scene pushed off left or right by the border of the next), but the performances he elicits from his cast are rarely up to it. Though they’re more internalized than Mr. Rasche’s, they’re also, mostly, bland and/or obvious (and there’s a child actor—a new character invented by Mr. Whitby—who, given the stunning abilities of child actors these days, is so unnatural and uninspired as to evoke the wrong kind of throwback). The two welcome exceptions are Jan Maxwell as the firtatious star, and Michael McCarty as the goof from the Gestapo. Theirs are two lovely performances (hers subtle, his sly) that hit exactly the right notes and seem to have drifted in from another production. Though really what they’ve come from is another sensibility, that of the authentic comedic instinct. Whatever business they come up with isn’t piled on but rather generated from within. It’s a whole ‘nuther animal.

                  It’s too bad, really. And when I think about it in this context, the lack of that instinct is perhaps the single most prevalent and constant reason why I’ve seen evenings of intended comedy fail. Ironically, it truly does come down to whether the actor can be or not be…

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