To Be or Not To Be and Two Rooms
by Richard Seff
It’s always risky to chance turning a great movie into a first rate stage play. It rarely works. About the best of the lot that comes to mind is Applause out of All About Eve, but even that one isn’t in the same class as Mama. If imagination is injected, things get better. 39 Steps, currently a hit on Broadway, takes a classic Hitchcock melodrama, twists it and turns it until it becomes a riotously funny spoof. In London, Brief Encounter includes all of that romantic film’s plot points, adds a dozen songs and some film, and voilà, we have a brand new work that delights and entertains us. But when the author (in this case Nick Whitby, a British film and tv writer) got his paws on the Ernst Lubitsch masterwork of the same title from the early 1940s, he added a few plot points of his own, threw in some stock newsreel footage of the Nazis invading Poland, sprinkled some tinkly tunes about, what emerged was a very endearing mess. Think “high school dramatic society”, and you’ve found the level of sophistication and know how in this Manhattan Theatre Club presentation on Broadway.
A game cast, headed by the very affable David Rasche and Jan Maxwell, plays it for all it’s worth, but all they can manage to draw from the audience are large smiles. Now and then a bit of business, an amusing costume (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a plump (and I’m being kind here) Michael McCarty in Tyrolean walking shorts as “Concentration Camp Erhard.” Peter Maloney works very hard as”Dowasz”, the manager of the theatre in which his company of actors is playing, though he has little funny material with which to work. For some reason, Mr. Whitby decided to throw in some material from other sources (including one character from The 39 Steps), and he’s robbed Robert Dorfman of his payoff scene as Shylock (the one Felix Bressart did so beautifully in the Lubitsch film), choosing instead to give it to his son (who wasn’t even in the original). I suppose to further prove that he’s written an original play merely based on the movie, the author has even chosen to change the spelling of many names (i.e. “Greenberg” becomes “Grunberg”, “Erhardt” becomes “Erhard”, “Rawitz” becomes “Rowitz”). Is a puzzlement!
To Be Or Not To Be plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre thru Nov. 16
I entered the Lion Theatre on West 42nd Street not knowing much about the revival of Lee Blessing’s play (he has another, A Body of Water, about which I’ll tell you in a couple of weeks). This one is called Two Rooms. All I knew about it was that the Platform Theatre Group, about which I’d heard nothing, was producing it, that it was written in 1988 and has been revived several times, most recently post-9/11 in New York. A producer’s note in the program asserts that this group “plans to produce dramas that stir emotions and debate, comedies that provoke laughter and inform through humor, and musicals that express theatrically through music and movement.” An ambitious platform, no?
But lo and behold, Two Rooms certainly lives up to its producer’s promise. Set in one room that serves as two, one in Beirut, the other in the protagonist’s home in America.. The time is ‘the recent past, 1988.’ So it’s all happening during the eighties when hostages were being take in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world, and this play deals with just one of them, here called ‘Michael Wells.’ The play is fluid and flexible, and with the help of imaginative lighting and excellent direction we move back and forth from the dark windowless room in which Wells is kept in solitary, blindfolded and handcuffed – for three years! Yes, he’s moved about so no one can discover where he is (various factions in Lebanon would like to get their hands on him for their own nefarious purposes). And of course the United States would like to get him back, without caving in to the demands of these terrorists. To this end, a State Deparment agent is dispatched to Mrs. Wells’ home to keep an eye on her and make certain she doesn’t inadvertently hurt the nation by helping her husband. Mrs. Wells is also tracked by a relentless reporter, one ‘Walker Harris’, who convinces her he is a friend who might be of use to her, but in the end each puts his own agenda first, and Mr.Wells is – well, suffice it to say this is not a comedy.
From the moment I entered the small theatre (88 seats), I was caught up in the play’s atmosphere. The room was visible, lit with great skill by Thom Weaver. A brick wall behind it, clearly a world foreign to us (when in use as a room in the Wells home, it is stripped of all furniture but a small rug, so that Mrs.Wells can feel more in contact with her husband). The sound design by Scott Stauffer gives us opening musical underscoring that takes us to the Middle East and the Arab world immediately. In the second scene, as Wells is thrust into the room by unseen guards, the condition he is in is enough to engage us at once. The four actors give us everything the play requires and more. By the end of it, we’ve seen fine ensemble playing, with a surprising strength coming from the fragile Angela Christian who plays Lainie Wells, the wife. Michael Lawrence as Wells gives a shattering performance as well, It’s all beautifully orchestrated by director Peter Flynn, most of whose work I’ve seen on musicals. This is a departure for him, and he’s delivered a powerful production of a powerful play. It’s with us for a very limited run, is scheduled to close on October 19th, but I’m certain it will pop up again and if it does, and you feel prepared to deal with Lee Blessing’s dark tale of what this world has come to, you will be amply rewarded – if the production near you matches the quality of this one at the Lion.
[Editor’s note: Our readers may remember Theater Alliance’s production of this play in May, 2006.}
Two Rooms continues at the Lion Theatre thru October 19th.
I’ll be leaving you on October 25th for 10 days to go paddling down the Columbia River in Oregon to see the “Lewis and Clark Buzz”, as we will follow their trail. I don’t think there’ll be much theatre along the way, but I’ll try to file another column before I leave. I’ll miss you all, and look forward to my first post-election column at which time I hope everyone is happy and healthy and prosperous once again.
Richard Seff is author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
- DCTS Podcasts featuring Richard Seff:
- Interviews with and about Chita Rivera, Love and Love Alone
- Interviews with and about John Kander, With Complete Kander
- Richard Seff: A Lifetime on Broadway
- Inside Broadway: A Return Visit with Richard Seff
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