Film critics have tried for the past 80 years or so to define the magic of the Lubitsch touch. Urbane humor, visual wit, sophistication, innuendo and charm were all factors, but subtlety was surely the key component — that incomparable touch was unvaryingly a light one. So one of the most disheartening things about British playwright Nick Whitby’s lumbering stage adaptation of “To Be or Not to Be” is the heavy hand that’s been brought to bear on the 1942 comedy about a Polish theater troupe outwitting the Nazis in occupied Warsaw.
With its backstage milieu, farcical comedy of intrigue and deception, delicious depiction of vainglorious actors and eccentric ensemble of characters, the film must have seemed a logical candidate to be refashioned for the stage. Nice idea, but at least in this clumsy attempt, it’s not to be.
Whether it’s as a play or musical, theatricalization of film properties requires, at the very least, freshness of vision, if not of structural conception. Whitby’s inert reworking of Edwin Justus Mayer’s screenplay for the Lubitsch movie simply slaps it onstage, with embellishments that add nothing and supposed expedients that slow things down.
Part of the blame has to go to director Casey Nicholaw’s poor feel for pacing, flow and transitions, resulting in a production with the lumpy sluggishness of a fatigued road show. But the writing is so pedestrian it’s hard to gauge whether more confident handling might have made a difference.
Act one sticks mostly to the film’s blueprint and is painless enough as imitations go. Bloviating ham Josef Tura (David Rasche) and his wife Maria (Jan Maxwell) are stars of the second-rate Polski Theatr, whose production of “A Gift From Hitler” is shut down by censors for fear of ruffling Nazi feathers. Falling back on “Hamlet,” Josef is unhinged when a young air force pilot in the front row walks out during his big soliloquy. His outrage turns to jealousy when he learns the offending theatergoer, Lt. Sobinsky (Steve Kazee), has been having secret assignations with Maria.
Any plans for a full-blown affair, however, are put on hold when war breaks out. Sobinsky enlists the Turas to thwart double agent Silewski (Rocco Sisto) in his bid to extinguish the Polish resistance, using costumes and sets from the banned play to help the underground cause.
Whitby’s tendency to inflate sly sexual nuance into bludgeoning double entendre dulls some of the film’s more delicate pleasures, but it’s in the long-winded second act, where he tries to one-up the screenplay, that things become embarrassing. A protracted scene of stage shtick during a Gestapo gala is especially awkward. While there are laughs from Michael McCarty as a rotund Nazi colonel eager to seduce Maria, the action grows increasingly strained as it lurches toward the renegade theater troupe’s escape.
Rasche has some fun with his character’s theatrical excesses, notably in his endless physical manifestations of Hamlet’s indecision. But nobody could accuse him of following Jack Benny’s lead in underplaying the comedy. Often, the actor seems acutely aware the jokes are not landing. Of the serviceable but undistinguished cast, only the reliable Maxwell strikes the right note of nonchalant distraction. She’s not Carole Lombard, but she has a winning way with throwaway dialogue.
Design elements from a team of Broadway regulars are decent, but this is nobody’s A game. That goes double for choreographer-turned-director Nicholaw, whose sparkling work on musicals (“The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Follies”) made it legitimate to expect something more polished.
Considering the original film was made while the Nazi menace was still in full force, the ingeniousness of the scenario, the balance of frivolity with dark satire and the masterful use of comedy to deflect anxiety were extraordinary. This misguided rehash grasps for a note of solemnity by having the cast pause en route to the final punchline to sing a melancholy Polish folk song. At that moment, you can almost hear Lubitsch stifling a yawn from his grave.