Jan Maxwell Is Stylishly Screwball in To Be Or Not To Be

Jan Maxwell Is Stylishly Screwball in To Be Or Not To Be Jan Maxwell's class and sass infuse a new Broadway production of the classic comedy To Be Or Not To Be.
Jan Maxwell with To Be Or Not To Be co-star David Rasche
Jan Maxwell with To Be Or Not To Be co-star David Rasche Photo by Henry Leutwyler

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Elegant zanies don't come in bunches, like bananas. The gold standard for stylish, sexy silliness was set last century by Carole Lombard in "Twentieth Century," "Nothing Sacred" and "To Be Or Not To Be," among other films, and her pedestal is still unshaken.

To be or not to be is not the question for Jan Maxwell. She'll be doing the Lombard part — not Lombard, she stresses — in a stage play Nick Whitby fashioned from the Ernst Lubitsch film that proved to be Lombard's last. Not only has she not seen "To Be Or Not To Be" (and only the "Sweet Georgia Brown"-in-Polish number in the Mel Brooks–Anne Bancroft remake), she has just seen one Lombard movie in her life — a long time ago, and she doesn't remember the title. "I don't understand people who watch the film before they do the stage version," she admits. "I know it's maybe a jumping-off point, but I don't think it would be successful to try to do a Xerox of somebody else."

That said, she's flattered to have director Casey Nicholaw singing her praises. "After the first reading," she recalls, "Casey, whom I've never worked with before but seems like the most delightful human being in the world, sent me an e-mail saying, 'You blew us away' and 'If we do this, we'd love for you to have it.' So I told my agent, 'Whatever happens this year — if that comes to fruition, I want to do it.' That era, the '40s, is right up my alley. I just love that kind of style. I love the glamour. And I love love love all the theatre jokes. There's this scene where Ehrhardt, the Nazi commander, says, 'Say good luck to me,' and I say, 'Oh, no, we never say — I mean, good luck.' All these theatre jokes tickle me so much. I did two readings, and both casts said that they'd never had a script where they truly laughed out loud as they were reading it, so I have high hopes it'll work."

When this play version premieres on Oct. 14 at the Friedman (formerly the Biltmore) Theatre, David Rasche (following Jack Benny's sugar-cured, swell-headed, preening lead) and Maxwell are The Lunts of Poland, Joseph and Maria Tura, who head a Shakespearean company as Germany invades Warsaw. Their marriage isn't doing well, either: Every time Joseph breaks into his Hamlet soliloquy, a dashing young airman in the audience (Steve Kazee) dashes for the exit and La Tura's dressing room. Surrounding the triangle: theatrical worthies like Peter Maloney, Kristine Nielsen, Peter Benson, Michael McCarty and Rocco Sisto. There are reasons Maxwell would loom like a latter-day Lombard. She is a first-rate actress in heavy-duty dramas, and this lends a reality to her comedy. Classy and sassy, she has an elevated, laid-back way of delivering a line that annihilates. A two-time Tony nominee, she's the darling of the Drama Desk, having been nominated five times (Coram Boy, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Sixteen Wounded, My Old Lady and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), actually winning the Featured Actress prize for the last.

Her specialty is kid-hating baronesses. The tart Baroness Elsa Schraeder maintained an audience-winning arm's length from the Trapp Family goo in The Sound of Music, and Chitty's Baroness Bomburst was broad-stroked but still within the realm of reason.

Maxwell even knows where her next child-unfriendly baroness is coming from — the Baroness Rodmilla De Ghent that Anjelica Huston hissed out in Drew Barrymore's 1998 Cinderella retelling, Ever After. She has done four workshops of the new musical and expects it to come together soon. "I don't know why I'm always the baroness. People just get stuck on it, I guess. It's certainly not my heritage, I know that."

The daughter of a former district judge, Maxwell stage-bowed in high school as Calamity Jane in Deadwood Dick. ("In West Fargo, North Dakota, we didn't have many scripts coming there.") At 16 she caught a life-defining Streetcar Named Desire at the Guthrie, and that put her on the right professional track.

She attended Moorhead State University in Moorhead, MN, and for five years did eight shows in ten weeks every summer at the university as a member of The Straw Hat Players. It was true love, "so I found many ways to get to New York. One was pretending I was religious and joining the United Campus Ministry, because they were coming here for $50. I think I left them in a church in Brooklyn."

She entered Broadway at a replacement level — first for Dee Hoty in City of Angels, then for Tony winner Brid Brennan in Dancing at Lughnasa — and worked her way up to originating roles in A Doll's House with Janet McTeer and The Dinner Party.

Her favorite role was done for "the provinces" (i.e., Maryland's Olney Theatre): an exquisite Camille directed by Richard Romagnoli, who recently steered her through a fiercely dramatic performance in Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution.

Maxwell did not marry her Armand but rather his jealous predecessor — would you believe Baron de Varville (played by Robert Emmet Lunney)? "Rob gave me my engagement ring onstage during the curtain call for the final performance of Lughnasa. He grabbed my hand and started pushing this thing into it. I thought, 'What infantile college ritual could this be?' It was like a peanut. I finally turned to him and, through gritted teeth, said, 'I've got it!' and stormed offstage, wondering, 'Why would he ruin these final moments we have?' I looked down, and there was a diamond ring. Of course, I started crying so there's a thousand people out there going, 'Boy, y'know, unemployment's going to be tough on that bitch. She's upset!'"