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Acting for their Lives

Date: Oct 02, 2008


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One of cinema's greatest valentines to the theatre, Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 classic To Be or Not To Be, moves to the Manhattan Theatre Club's Friedman Stage this week in a new adaptation by British playwright Nick Whitby, directed by Casey Nicholaw (The Drowsy Chaperone, the upcoming Minsky's).

One important note: Unlike every film-to-stage adaptation you read about these days, and despite having a Tony-nominated director/choreographer at its helm, this To Be or Not To Be is not a musical.

"There's almost too much going on for it to be a musical," says Nicholaw, who was brought on to direct after Whitby wrote the adaptation. "I for one am glad it's not. But I will say that, to play theatrically, it almost has to move in a musical fashion, though I've never thought of it in those terms."

Another adjective for Nicholaw's approach to cramming the film's many characters, incidents and locations onstage?

"It's ended up being cinematic," Nicholaw says. "Most of what I do is try to keep it fluid, so it goes from scene to scene as seamlessly as possible."

The original script by Lubitsch and Edwin Justus Mayer, from Melchior Lengyel's story, follows the backstage dramas of an embattled Polish theatre company, whose creative challenge to the Nazi occupation of Warsaw thwarts some, if not all, of its evil plans. It's a dark comedy, to be sure, with the humor deriving as much from theatre folks' dangerous self-absorption as from the Nazis' bungling. (It's hardly surprising that Mel Brooks saw fit to remake it in 1983.)

"It's a really tricky tone, and hopefully we'll do it justice," Nicholaw says. "The original was written in such a layered way—there's reality, and then a laugh in a hideous situation, and then reality again, and another laugh in a hideous situation. That's what's so brilliant."

This offbeat mix can be difficult to pace onstage, Nicholaw explains.

"With a film, you can feel it gradually turn in a certain direction, and follow it as it does," Nicholaw says, referring in particular to the way Lubitsch's film gets darker and more harrowing as it goes on. "Onstage you have an Act One and an Act Two. So Nick has actually had to keep the comedy going a little more than in the movie."

Whitby also added some female characters to a cast that memorably included Carole Lombard and Jack Benny and Josef and Maria Tura, a husband-and-wife acting team that are the Lunts of Poland. These are some big icons to wrestle with.

"I'm never going to say in a rehearsal, 'Act like Jack Benny and Carole Lombard,' " Nicholaw says. "On the other hand, a lot of the script was written with Jack Benny in mind, so you can't escape that entirely." In the roles of Josef and Maria, respectively, are David Rasche and Jan Maxwell; both actors, Nicholaw assures, "honor the original performances but make the parts their own."

They are juicy, larger-than-life characters—star performers who "both need each other so desperately," Nicholaw says. "Part of their love for each other is their love for themselves."

Though the original came out at the end of an economic depression and during a time a war, Nicholaw does not insist on striking deep cultural resonances between To Be or Not To Be and today's wartime jitters.

"You wanna keep people laughing," Nicholaw stresses, but adds: "Even when the world is not in a great state, you're still going to find funny situations and get on with the day-to-day of life. Actors can be a little bit shallow, more concerned with their getting their costume right than with what's going on outside the stage door."

Lest that last bit sound dangerously to the moral bleakness of something like Cabaret, in which a whole culture fiddles while Rome burns, figuratively speaking, Nicholaw is quick to remind us: "It is a comedy."

A life-and-death comedy, though.

"It's true, they're acting for their lives," Nicholaw concedes. "They need to do this or they're going to die."

Are there are any higher stakes?

Click here for more information about To Be or Not To Be.