Steve Kazee, Jan Maxwell, and Kristine Nielsen
in To Be Or Not to Be
(© Joan Marcus)
Steve Kazee, Jan Maxwell, and Kristine Nielsen
in To Be Or Not to Be
(© Joan Marcus)
In the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of To Be Or Not to Be, now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, ham actor-turned-reluctant hero Josef Tura exclaims: "There is nothing an actor can not do! For the actor, everything is possible!" I hate to differ -- but there is at least one thing actors can not do. They cannot pull Nick Whitby's inadequate adaptation of the beloved 1942 Ernst Lubitsch-directed film out of the fire.

The original flick, about a troupe of thespians thwarting Nazi plans for undermining the resistance in occupied Poland, starred the inimitable Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, two stars who could play off their well-known acting styles for side-splitting comic effect. Here, the unenviable task of playing Josef and his flamboyant and libidinous actress wife Maria fall to David Rasche and Jan Maxwell. Unfortunately, Rasche (who replaced Craig Bierko shortly before previews) has apparently been encouraged to echo -- and even exaggerate -- Benny's signature gestures and vocal patterns. As for the usually-reliable Maxwell, she is hampered not just by the script, but by a wig (from hair designer Josh Marquette) that no amount of the actress' incessant fluffing improves.

The main story is set in motion when handsome young pilot Stanislaw Sobinsky (Steve Kazee) -- who has a letch for Maria -- returns to Poland after being in England with disturbing news. What he tells the Turas later requires Josef to impersonate a couple of Gestapo factotums -- at extended-sketch length -- and sets up the rest of Josef's troupe to serve as boldly willing accomplices. Despite himself, Josef often rises above his blunders and, eventually, the German cause founders.

While the supporting cast -- which includes such familiar faces as Peter Benson, Peter Moloney, Krisitine Nielsen, and Rocco Sisto -- does yeoman-like work, it doesn't help matters that director Casey Nicholaw often positions the players as if they're the unruly participants in a police line-up.

Anna Louizos' sets, though period-evocative from scene to scene, are changed behind billowing curtains that often get in the way of the actors emoting downstage. (The one witty touch is signage in a Nazi-appropriated drawing-room that seems to indicate -- in Polish -- the way to the men's and women's toilets.) Gregg Barnes' costumes fit the bill, particularly when Maria dresses up in sumptuous gowns.

For all the production's many flaws, some of the script's dialogue -- much of it lifted bodily from the film -- successfully lands. One of the funniest lines comes from invading Colonel Erhard (Michael McCarty), who says about attending one of Josef's performances of Hamlet: "What he did to Shakespeare, we are now doing to Poland." Sadly, the same could be said about what's being done by Nicholaw and company to the original To Be or Not to Be.