To Be or Not to Be
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
October 17, 2008
Intriguing sets, finely conceived costumes, and an earnest cast go a long way in the theatre, but, in the end, they are not enough to conceal or make up for material that doesn't meet the quality of its parts. Such is the case in To Be or Not To Be, Nick Whitby's interpretation of a 1942 cult movie that satirizes Germany's takeover of Poland.
To Be, a farce, focuses on a theatre troupe's role in retrieving a list from the Nazis with the names of resistance fighters on it. The actors, headed by a husband and wife team named Josef and Maria, are solicited into this intrigue by a bomber pilot, Lt. Sobinsky, who is also in love with Maria. The play opens with the troupe's performance—a re-enactment of Germany's invasion of Poland—being shut down. That show is replaced by Hamlet, giving the lovers an opportunity for a nightly rendezvous while Josef, a self-involved ham, performs his soliloquy of you-know-what.
Directed by Casey Nicholaw with uneven timing, there are laughs but not nearly as many as one would hope. Jan Maxwell looks every bit the glamorous star Maria is supposed to be with Howell Binkley's lights shimmering on her crimped auburn hair and highlighting the exquisite fit of Gregg Barnes's sleek costumes. David Rasche has a tougher go as Josef. Whether by direction, his own device, or some combination, he is pure ham without seasoning, setting his craft aside for, perhaps, another play. This is demonstrated shamelessly in the playwright's most dispensable scene, a benefit for the Germans, where Rasche is just plain goofy. Peter Maloney gives his earnest best as the director of the troupe, and Marina Squerciati is fine as an eager ingénue who delivers on her promise of a wonderful faint.
It occurred to me that the play might have benefited from a more intimate space—my theory being that the sins of imperfect dialogue or less-than-perfect timing won't have the opportunity to multiply like echoes before reaching the audience. A small stage is simply more forgiving. In fact, this is precisely what Anna Louizos strives for in a number of her inventive scenic designs. Maria's dressing room, snuggled into a corner of the stage, is warmly conceived, private, and allows Maxwell to shine in it. Curtains drawn in sequence, three-deep, nicely reduce the size of the remaining stage. The Nazi headquarters dominates centerstage, but again not the whole stage, and is a pristine, colorful room. Two scenes show the performers from behind, facing their audience, an eye-catching device. Sets move easily, and at times, Nicholaw has the actors walking through doorways even as the set is being struck, which gives the feeling of brisk movement so necessary in farce.
At two hours and one intermission, I wanted a crisper, funnier play; still, the excellent work of the designers was not lost on me.