Film classics 'Dinner,' 'To Be' to be adapted

Guess who’s coming to Broadway?

If you’re looking for theatrical interpretations of classic movies but insist on buying American, there’s good news for you, too. “To Be or Not to Be,” Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 black comedy, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Stanley Kramer’s racially charged 1967 drama, are both headed to the Rialto in the fall. And that may be just the beginning.

First up is Casey Nicholaw’s production for Manhattan Theater Club of “To Be or Not to Be,” opening Oct. 2 at the Biltmore, with David Rasche and Jan Maxwell in the Jack Benny and Carole Lombard parts. Edwin Justus Mayer’s screenplay, about a Polish acting troupe preparing a satire on Hitler in 1939, hardly needs to be adapted to the stage: Most of the action takes place in a theater.

“The tricky part is finding the tone of the piece,” says Nicholaw. “You have to layer it. As soon as it starts getting a little dark, you want to get a laugh.”

The film has been remade before — by Mel Brooks in 1983, who cast himself in the Benny part. But Nicholaw thinks the script is strong enough to carry over into a different form. And he’s not the only one with that idea.

“We were seeing it mostly with musicals, but now we’re seeing it with plays, too,” he says of the wider screen-to-stage trend. “People are looking for a brand, and it’s been hard to sell straight plays recently.”

“Dinner” producer Jeffrey Finn agrees. “It’s very important to bring new plays to Broadway,” Finn says. “And this is a new play — it’s not a revival.”

Finn says he and director Kenny Leon want to update the play without taking away its historical setting or screenwriter William Rose’s distinctive voice. “The film is iconic, but there’s more to be done with it,” Finn contends.

Even Rose wanted to do more with it. Kramer shot the movie during star Spencer Tracy’s final illness and had to cut and rearrange the script to work around the dying actor’s schedule. So this fall’s production, the opening date and venue for which have not yet been set, will include new lines by Rose, as well as additions by adapter Todd Kreidler.

The acid test, for Nicholaw and for Finn, seems to be whether or not there’s anything to add with a stage version. Even without an offbeat directorial concept a la “The 39 Steps,” a straight play will have to go further than a musical to prove it belongs on the stage.

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