To Be Or Not To Be @ Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York

cast list
Peter Benson
Robert Dorfman
David Rasche
Steve Kazee
Jan Maxwell
Michael McCarty
Peter Maloney
Kristine Nielsen
Brandon Perler
Rocco Sisto
Jimmy Smagula
Marina Squerciati

directed by
Casey Nicholaw
To Be or Not To Be is a comedy based on the 1942 movie of the same name.

It is a very likeable, intimate show but it is also one that requires the striking of a delicate balance: this is after all a comedy set in Warsaw in 1939, in and around the time of the Nazi invasion and later suppression of Poland. Those familiar with the film and who understand that this is a comedy about finding strength in laughter are more likely to warm to it than those coming to it fresh.

I believe that most theatrical productions should stand on their own, that knowledge of the source material shouldnt be necessary to enjoy it, but To Be or Not To Be will, I think, be most appreciated by those with some familiarity with the film. The movie and now the stage show tell the tale of a troupe of thespians who grapple with the Nazis in occupied Poland. The film starred Jack Benny and Carole Lombard both hard acts to follow as Joseph and Maria Tura, husband and wife theatrical types. Here these roles are played by David Rasche and Jan Maxwell.

Director Casey Nicholaw attempts to set the comic tone at the start, but this is quickly undermined by the use of newsreel footage to depict the invasion and subsequent suppression of the Polish people. This device, a blunt reminder of the realities of war, pulled the audience out of the moment and they had a hard time getting back into the appropriate mood. Indeed there were a couple of moments in the first half where I felt as if I were the only one laughing.

As the play progresses, the comedy is greatly enhanced by the use of cartoonish Nazis, bad jokes and much eye rolling. Here a better balance was struck and a necessary distance brought to the material. The light mood of the second act is punctured only once, as an off screen character is sent away to a concentration camp. This is handled rather clumsily and feels like a tokenistic nod to the terrible crimes of World War II.

However, if you can ignore these missteps and see the importance in finding humour in such things (remember the film was shot when the outcome of the war was strongly in doubt), then the show is a pleasure to watch. A number of excellent performances help. Rasche, as Tura, does a superb job of playing a cuddly, self involved buffoon. He effortlessly portrays a man who is both narcissistic and insecure, all the while remaining fairly loveable, in a big dumb lug kind of way.

The support cast does an admirable job in playing characters that must face defeat and yet still find the humour in the situation. The weak link was Jan Maxwell, I simply didn’t buy her portrayal of a woman capable of driving men to stupidity; she was pretty and breathy, but lacked the necessary carefree aura the part required (though I concede my opinion may be tainted by fond memories of Lombards performance in the original film).

Much like the stage version of The 39 Steps, this is a production where a healthy familiarity with the source material will really enhance your experience. And if you value the act of laughing in the face of terrible odds, then, despite its weaknesses, this remains a production worth seeing.

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