Is He Dead?
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 19, 2007
Is He Dead? isn't a particularly funny title, but the long-delayed Broadway premiere of this satirical farce by Mark Twain (via a savvy adaptation by David Ives) is very funny indeed. Written in 1898 and lost for about a century, this irreverent poke at every kind of pretension imaginable is a welcome treat for the theatergoer, and caps the Fall 2007 season delightfully.
The "He" of the play's title is French painter Jean-Francois Millet, or more accurately Twain's fanciful, off-kilter version of Millet, who here is presented as a young genius entirely neglected by the art establishment and the public despite his massive talent. Twain's Millet smokes cigars and a corncob pipe, is called Francis by his friends, and is in love with a young woman named Marie Leroux; his closest pals are his painting students Agamemnon Buckner (nicknamed "Chicago," in love with Marie's sister Cecile), Hans von Bismarck ("Dutchy," overly fond of smelly limburger cheese), and Phelim O'Shaughnessy, who is so Irish that when he enters Millet's Paris studio for the first time, everybody breaks out into Michael Flatley-style step dance.
So, clearly He is NOT dead; the premise of the play's farcical happenings, though, is that Millet fakes his own death in order to increase the value of his (heretofore worthless) paintings. There's a pressing need for this duplicity, namely that the art critic and sometime money lender Bastien André, a slippery mustachioed villain right out of a hoary American melodrama, is about to ruin not only Millet (who owes him 2,500 francs) but also Marie and Cecile's father Louis (who is in debt to the tune of 15,000 francs). The plan, which is concocted by Chicago and executed by him, Dutchy, Phelim, and Millet, is that they will give out that Millet is dying of a dread disease on the Barbary Coast. As soon as word gets out that he's terminal, they figure, the prices of his paintings will skyrocket. (And they do.)
Millet, meanwhile, will pretend to be his own (non-existent) twin sister, a wildly improbably widow with the wildly improbable name of Daisy TuYu (I'm not sure I'm spelling that last name correctly; that's how it sounds).
And thus the fun begins. Millet gets to clown around as a non-Brazilian Charley's Aunt, basking in his/her new-found wealth and receiving unwelcome attention from M. André and M. Leroux, both of whom fall madly in love with Daisy. His friends get the benefit of Millet's liberally shared good fortune. And somehow everything ends up more or less neatly tied up in the end, with lovers appropriately paired up and the villainous André neatly if non-violently banished. Twain gets plenty of digs in about the detrimental effects of becoming a slave to Mammon without pushing too hard on any buttons. And a grand, often hilarious time is had by all.
Michael Blakemore's realization of this giddy and monumentally silly farce is spot-on. Peter J. Davison's sets and Martin Pakledinaz's costumes capture the crew before and after they become enormously rich; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski and sound by David Van Tieghem nicely complement these designs. The pacing is perfect, with the jokes and gags flying fast and furious. The slightly un-/surreal tone, established almost as soon as the curtain rises, is sustained admirably by everyone involved.
The cast is splendid, and all 11 of its members has at least one moment to shine in this ensemble-driven piece. John McMartin morphs deftly from pathos to lechery as M. Leroux; Byron Jennings relishes every metaphorical twirl of his moustache as the nasty nasty M. André; Jenn Gambatese shows us a Marie who is not as dim-witted as she first appears and Bridget Regan shows us a Celine who is; Jeremy Bobb and Tom Alan Robbins are whimsically and occasionally over-the-type archetypal (Irish and German, respectively) as Phelim and Dutchy; Patricia Conolly and Marylouise Burke play perfect foils for the eccentrics around them as Millet's landladies; and David Pittu is invaluable in a variety of roles, including a cheapskate English art buyer and the King of France. Michael McGrath solidifies his already impressive resume as chief second banana Chicago, grounding much of the show's lunacy with his no-nonsense approach to comedy.
And at the center of it all in a bona fide star turn is Norbert Leo Butz as Millet/Daisy. His elegant clowning as the latter in no way detracts from the earnest ardor of his performance as the former, which is why his character's particular pretense plays so well. Butz is a hoot and a half as Daisy; there's a gag during an impromptu tea party with the two landladies that made me laugh longer and harder than I have since Martin Short was last in town.
All in all, a pretty impressive debut for a play that was locked away in obscurity for a hundred years. I predict a long life now for Is He Dead?—and perhaps even a slightly longer life, too, for everyone who sees it. Laughter is very good for you.