Sunday, September 21, 2008

To Be Or...- Let's Go With Not

To Be Or Not To Be -This Manhattan Theater Club selection is in previews now at the Friedman Theatre. As Good As News would like to say it's a "sophisticated black comedy set in wartime Poland". Unfortunately that was the 1942 movie version, an Ernst Lubitsch classic starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny. "Lots of Laughs"? Sorry again, that was the 1983 remake with Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks. The 2008 stage version never gets off the ground as the heroic efforts of a Polish theater troop to resist the Nazi invasion, because actors can do anything, needs an update with some attitude.

As a comedy, the show is stiff and dated. David Rasche as Josef, a leading light of the Polish stage, seems to be heading on a camping trip at times, but the rest of the cast doesn't want to come along. Is he really mocking his own character, or is that just an earnest effort to do a good job playing a bad actor? If Mel Brooks staged a remake this script would be punched up with a few dozen more screwball lines and pumped up with a lot more physical comedy. A consistently camp approach with some snarky asides might also work (lots of people liked the self-referential The Thirty-Nine Steps, although I was not among them). Either way, the show needs something. The audience wasn't laughing and the material did not create the kind of emotional involvement needed to work as a drama while the comedy was falling flat.

The use of newsreel like footage projected onto the theater curtain as a transitional device was highly effective, fast forwarding painlessly then meshing almost perfectly into the next scene on the stage. The projection design and the bones of the plot (which, after all, were strong enough to support two successful movies) could have led to something more, but this show is still screaming "get me rewrite" and the deadline is at hand.

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