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NY Theater Reviews

Steve Kazee, Jan Maxwell, and Kristine Nielsen/PH: Joan Marcus



To Be Or Not To Be ought to balance on the knife's edge where hysteria and hilarity meet. Only the knife is dull and the laughter is forced.

When the 1942 film on which this play is based came out, it was considered to be shockingly disrespectful for using such a dire situation-the Nazi invasion of Poland-as the backdrop for the farcical shenanigans of a troupe of actors. One of the chief problems with Nick Whitby's newest rendition of this tale may be that it's all too aware of the demands of historical propriety. That strained decorum inhibits even its most potentially anarchic antics-which are symbolically, at least, the moments most subversive of fascist ideology.

The story's humor is so broad that it's not surprising that Mel Brooks remade the film in 1983. The self-absorbed Josef Tura (David Rasche ) and his flirtatious wife Maria (Jan Maxwell) are the leading couple of a little theater company in Warsaw, squabbling over billing and Maria's admirers, one of whom, a young Polish pilot named Sobinsky (Steve Kazee), does Josef the further indignity of leaving his seat during his signature soliloquy as Hamlet - and descending months later upon the group of the now destitute actors to ask for their help in catching a German spy who has the names of everyone in the Polish underground. Through a series of hastily-concocted dramatic enactments (of Gestapo headquarters, among other things) the Turas and their troupe attempt to foil the spy, save the underground, rescue themselves-and get top billing.

The cast is likable and hardworking, and they do their best to establish their one-note characters as sympathetic, relatable people: Maxwell's fey not-protesting-too-much has more depth, if less appeal, than Rasche's bluff egotism. But the usually delightful Kristine Nielsen is wasted in a secondary role even she can't make interesting, and the other characters fare no better in their parts, which are mainly riffs on quirkily artistic victimhood - if it weren't the Nazis, it would be the critics. There is a looming specter of Art that hangs over the proceedings, but its acolytes just come across as arty.

And ultimately, the whole production-conception to execution-suffers from the same problem on a larger scale. Sixty-plus years of WWII drama make it all-but-mandatory to treat the characters' pragmatic, moment-to-moment decisions about survival something more ideological. As the play presents them now, the troupe's mundane quarrels and friendships are contrasted with their nobler urges, their joy in their own histrionics clashes with the truth of the horror that awaits them if they fail-when in fact, all theses elements are integrally connected. This play should balance on the knife's edge where hilarity meets hysteria and the heightened danger and raised stakes just elevate the pace and pandemonium. Instead it falls off the tightrope into a safety net.