To go or not to go? That is the question. And when it comes to Nick Whitby's adaptation of the classic 1942 film comedy of the same name, the answer is obvious: Don't go, and 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.
Ernst Lubitsch's movie starred Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as actors in Warsaw during World War II. While it isn't easy to find the funny side of the occupation of Poland, Lubitsch and his appealing stars pulled it off while making it look effortless. In the stage To Be or Not to Be, the actors strain for laughs but seldom get them.
David Rasche plays the hammy actor Josef Tura, who outwits the Nazis, and Jan Maxwell is his glamorous, two-timing wife Maria. In one of the movie's most famous scenes, a handsome pilot leaves his seat just as Josef begins Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy" to meet Maria in her dressing room. This scene probably inspired Whitby to adapt the film, and Sobinsky (Steve Kazee) leaving his front-row seat with flowers in hand is one of the play's few funny moments. Rasche, who took over the role from Craig Bierko, earns some chuckles with his ridiculous actorly walk and line readings that sometimes bring to mind Benny. Maxwell has fun with the double entendres regarding Sobinsky's "big bomber," but otherwise she just looks chic in Gregg Barnes' stylish 1930s dresses.
Among the supporting actors, Michael McCarty's lederhosen-wearing Colonel Erhard enlivens the second act. The rest of the cast tries hard to amuse but almost always fails. The usually hilarious Kristine Nielsen is completely wasted as a theater assistant. The overall listlessness primarily stems from Whitby's script, but Casey Nicholaw's uninspired direction doesn't help. And when the tone turns serious near the end, the mood feels awkward instead of touching.
To Be or Not to Be was remade as a film in 1983, when Mel Brooks put himself and wife Anne Bancroft in the Benny and Lombard roles. Brooks' version isn't bad, and perhaps the silly Nazis gave him the idea to put "Springtime for Hitler" on Broadway. One remake was enough, however. This tepid adaptation saps most of the life-and laughs-out of a movie that epitomized the "Lubitsch touch."