THE FURTHER CANNIBALIZATION OF CINEMA (HOPEFULLY NOT A CONTINUING SERIES)
by Harvey Perr
published October 17, 2008
To Be Or Not To
now playing on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater
As someone who thought The 39 Steps was Hitchcock for those who only think they like
Hitchcock but who don’t really know Hitchcock at all, I could nevertheless accept the argument that its critical and popular success was
due to the admittedly minimal cleverness of its theatrical trickery. But, sitting through To Be Or
Not To Be, I couldn’t help but wonder if the idea for this stage adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch’s film classic wasn’t a direct result of
the success of The 39 Steps. So, let me say right now that if this is a trend, if more great
films are to be cannibalized as fodder for the theater, it is a trend that should be nipped in the bud immediately. Theater is theater and
cinema is cinema and there is no reason in the world why the twain should meet.
Hopefully, To Be Or Not To Be will quietly disappear and there is no real need to beat
a starving dog to death. And the talented artists involved in this production will move on to better things, both for their own betterment
and for ours. But for the record, Nick Whitby, who wrote the witless adaptation, should have looked more closely at the Melchior Lengyel and
Edwin Justus Mayer screenplay; he might have discovered that the combination of farce and sentimentality he has strived for is no substitute
for the mix of wit and heartbreak that was the hallmark of that screenplay. It is true that the film was a failure upon its release, but
that had more to do with its being made in 1943, when the idea of treating Hitler as a comic character was considered tasteless by a world
that was too horrified by the war to allow itself to be as sophisticated as we now know
Lubitsch was, than with the quality of the work, so it would be unwise for Whitby to consider his failure an approximation in any way of the
critical misunderstanding of the original.
And David Rasche, who can do a pitch-perfect imitation of Jack Benny, should return to the film to see how subtly Benny, under
Lubitsch’s direction, played a ham actor; there is a difference between ham and ham on wry. As for Jan Maxwell, she is quite simply
miscast, for all her talent; she literally has to place her tongue in her cheek to get a laugh out of the same line that Carole Lombard
could toss off with casual elegance. Comedy should be like breathing, not panting.
And Casey Nicholaw, whom I shall cherish forever for his revelatory staging of Follies
in the recent Encore! series, may indeed be as great a force in the theater one day as Lubitsch was in cinema. In a work that treats a
stranded company of actors in a Warsaw recently invaded by the Nazis, he should have known enough about the strange and wonderful creatures
he works with every day to treat them with warmth and compassion and the requisite comic irony, without necessarily competing with the great
Lubitsch, but, because he is working with much less to begin with, he may not be entirely to blame for the flat-footed work on display
The point is that anyone subjected to To Be Or Not To Be should go home and rent the
original film not only to get the sour taste this production leaves out of one’s mouth but to discover the beauties of personal cinema.
It’s the sort of thing that’s inimitable. Just as truly great theater is never really fully realized in its transference to the screen.
Please, please, a bad new play will always be preferable to a bad play based on a movie, especially a bad play based on a great
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com