Mark Twain memorably cabled The Associated Press from Europe: "The report of my death was an exaggeration."
How much of an exaggeration we never guessed - for last night at the Lyceum Theatre saw the world premiere of Twain's new play, "Is He Dead?" Possibly in Twain's spirit, we should add: "Yet."
There's nothing like a little resuscitation to cheer a guy up - especially when it's supervised by the comic genius of Norbert Leo Butz.
It seems the play was written in 1898 (12 years before Twain's less than exaggerated demise) but only recently discovered. It was brushed up by David Ives and staged by British director Michael Blakemore.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this old/new play is about the death of an artist. Or, rather, the report of his death.
In this instance, the rumor came from the artist himself, the impecunious and real-life painter Jean-Francois Millet, who was then - and even today - highly regarded.
Twain suggests that his fictional Millet (Butz) and his friends staged the painter's prolonged illness and death to raise the price of his paintings.
Who wouldn't rather have present cash than posthumous fame?
Frankly, Twain's play (even with Ives' tinkering) is pretty feeble - a mix of the cross-dressing British farce "Charley's Aunt," written six years earlier (and better known as the musical "Where's Charley?") and dog-eared copies of the frou-frou magazine La Vie Parisienne.
Yet Twain (and Ives) have struck it rich with Blakemore, the set designer Peter J. Davison, the costume designer Martin Pakledinaz and a cast that can spin gold out of lead.
Of his own paintings, the real-life Millet observed: "I make the trivial an expression of the sublime." And that pretty much sums up what Blakemore, Butz & Co. achieve here.
Like most of its genre, the farce is slow getting on its feet. It's set in Millet's Paris attic studio, archly bestrewn with copies of Millet's best-known paintings.
But soon the premises are set: A mustache-bristling villain, Bastien Andre (the splendid Byron Jennings), threatens foreclosure and ruin not just upon Millet but also on his fiancée, Marie (the lovely Jenn Gambatese, who's finally found a role worthy of her after "Tarzan" and "All Shook Up"), her sister Cecile (the charming Bridget Regan in a Broadway debut) and their father, Papa Leroux (the magnificently doddering John McMartin, who's been on Broadway almost as long as the Lyceum).
Add to these dedicated farceurs Millet's friends (the irrepressible Michael McGrath, Jeremy Bobb and Tom Alan Robbins); a duo of uncertain-age ladies, Marylouise Burke and Patricia Conolly; plus (very much plus) David Pittu, a one-man band who handles many roles in the play with unshakable aplomb.
Leading the revels is Butz, who, once he gets into drag as Millet's sister, is simply incomparable. Revive "Where's Charley?" for him next season!
By the time the cast erupts into the crazy dance that constitutes its curtain call, it would be a hard heart that could have resisted such a subtly nutsy ensemble performance.
What might have been a wheeze turns out to be a giggle.
“Is He Dead?,” a previously unproduced play by the long-dead Mark Twain, has at last made its Broadway debut. And for something that’s basically been lying immobile for more than a century, gathering dust in archives, it has a remarkably sprightly step.
Most of the credit, I hasten to add, does not belong to the immortal author of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” whose many literary crowns did not include that of laurel-wreathed dramatist. Twain’s trenchant satirist’s eye is just barely discernible in this silly, formulaic farce, written in 1898, about a starving French painter forced to don women’s clothes.
But with the right doctors, even a long-buried dinosaur can be made to dance. “Is He Dead?,” which opened last night at the Lyceum Theater, benefits mightily from a top-grade team of resurrection artists. They include the director Michael Blakemore, the playwright David Ives (who adapted Twain’s script) and an infectiously happy cast, led by the wondrous Norbert Leo Butz, that serves a master class in making a meal out of a profiterole.
Reclaimed from the mothballs by the scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin, who came upon the manuscript five years ago in the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California, Berkeley, “Is He Dead?” would likely generate only a few chuckles (and many a cry of “Oh, brother”) in the reading. Its plot suggests an ungainly younger cousin to “Charley’s Aunt,” Brandon Thomas’s popular cross-dressing comedy from 1892.
Set in and near Paris in 1846, “Is He Dead?” presents a lineup of cultural and farcical stereotypes, seen with the wide-eyed-with-a-wink gaze that Twain brought to “The Innocents Abroad,” the travel memoir that made him solvent. At the show’s center is Jean-François Millet (no, the name is not a coincidence), a brilliant but unrecognized painter played by Mr. Butz. Since Jean-François can’t sell a landscape to save his life (literally), his inner circle of bohemian friends — an ethnic stew made up of an American (Michael McGrath), a German (Tom Alan Robbins) and an Irishman (Jeremy Bobb) — convince him that faking his death is just the ticket for raising his stock. So Jean-François disappears from life and re-emerges as his imaginary twin sister, a widow both mad and madcap. The expected complications ensue.
You’re groaning, right? I’ll admit I wasn’t all that happy for the play’s first 10 minutes or so, despite the obvious polish of the cast and the physical production, which includes exaggerated postcard-pretty sets (Peter J. Davison) and costumes (Martin Pakledinaz), as well as a slew of reproductions of the real Millet’s paintings.
But once Mr. Butz puts on a pink dress, this Tony-winning comic actor (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”), who had been rather flavorless in his opening scene, shows the true comic genius of which he is made. From that moment the whole production feels as if it’s been pumped through with nitrous oxide. Jokes you would swear you would never laugh at suddenly seem funny.
Mr. Blakemore, the British director who has brought such theatrical élan to the complexity of Michael Frayn (“Copenhagen,” “Democracy”), here exhibits the same comic assurance he demonstrated in the 1983 Broadway premiere of Mr. Frayn’s master farce “Noises Off.” He keeps the familiar machinery running smoothly without ever letting it shift into automatic pilot. And he understands the difference between knowing exaggeration and crowd-pandering vulgarity.
So does his cast, which offers a spectrum of witty variations on theatrical fossils. These include (in addition to the national cartoons of Mr. McGrath, Mr. Robbins and Mr. Bobb), John McMartin’s frisky take on the elderly gentleman lecher, Jenn Gambatese’s and Bridget Regan’s versions of the palpitating ingénues, and Patricia Conolly’s and Marylouise Burke’s sweet, stylish turns as a pair of fluttering old maids.
Byron Jennings appears to be having the time of his life as a sleek, melodramatic villain. (His greyhound carriage and vulpine face have seldom been used to such piquant visual advantage.) And David Pittu plays too many people to count with a consummate blend of precision and enthusiasm that is this production’s hallmark.
Looking like a cross between Kirsten Dunst and Joan Sutherland in “La Traviata,” Mr. Butz in drag is a minor miracle, both honoring the conventions of a hoary elbow-ribbing type and making them feel brand new. Like many great comic actors he suggests that he has more energy than a human body can naturally contain. Put him in the captivity of a whalebone corset and tiers of taffeta, and he becomes a bizarrely frilly volcano poised on the brink of eruption.
I’m not going to quote much from the play, since most of its jokes wither and die when removed from the rarefied air of the Lyceum. Anyway, I’m not sure which one-liners are Twain’s and which come from Mr. Ives, the author of the delightful “All in the Timing.” (Example: Mr. McGrath’s character speaks of taking a potential client “to ‘The Gleaners.’”)
And I probably shouldn’t tell you that there’s extended horseplay involving the stench of Limburger cheese and the centuries-old shtick involving an attractive woman who turns out to be made of artificial parts. Mr. Butz and company proceed with such giddy confidence that by evening’s end the show fleetingly assumes the authoritative absurdity of Oscar Wilde and Joe Orton. (There’s even a thrown-away Wildean-Ortonian line, “I congratulate you on your polygamy.”)
I don’t know about you, but as winter’s grayness creeps up on us, I’m in the mood for savvy stupidity. And Broadway isn’t doing much to satisfy that taste. (“Young Frankenstein”? Give me a break.)
“Is He Dead?” may be a scam, trying to pass off copper as gold. But by the time Mr. Butz raises his skirts and kicks up his heels for a final dance of the seven petticoats (or however many there are), there was indeed gold dust in my eyes.
He cemented an enduring reputation as a novelist, short story writer, humorist and essayist, but Mark Twain never cracked the challenge of becoming a playwright, despite multiple stabs. When it was rediscovered in 2002 and published the following year, the unproduced 1898 comedy "Is He Dead?" was greeted as an amusing curio, but reviews seemed to confirm Twain's suspicion that he lacked the fundamental tools to write for the stage. So it's a welcome surprise that in its Broadway premiere, director Michael Blakemore, adapter David Ives and a spirited cast led by human whoopee cushion Norbert Leo Butz have turned this trifle into a ripely enjoyable confection.
Blakemore knows his way around farce, having scored one of his biggest hits with the original London and Broadway productions of Michael Frayn's "Noises Off," which reinvigorated the genre by matching the comic chaos onstage with even more absurd antics happening backstage among cast and crew.
Twain attempts nothing so complex, but he does ladle on all the required ingredients of outrageous deceit, improbable disguises, cheeky sexual innuendo, silly melodrama and escalating confusion, whipping it all together with humor that mixes rascally wit with broad physical comedy. Ives clearly has had a significant hand in ironing out the kinks, but the irreverent potshots at cultural pretentiousness and the hypocrisies of the art world are typically Twainian.
"I am glad the old masters are all dead, and I only wish they had died sooner," Twain wrote in 1867. He grants himself that wish by making rural realism heavyweight Jean-Francois Millet his main character and then killing him off (well, not quite) while he's still a struggling artist. Placing a painter known for the noble simplicity of his work at the center of an elaborate madcap comedy is a big part of the joke.
Sales are slow, and penniless Millet (Butz) is in debt to ruthless picture dealer-cum-usurer Bastien Andre (Byron Jennings). Even deeper in debt is Louis Leroux (John McMartin), father of Millet's sweetheart, Marie (Jenn Gambatese), who has also turned Andre's head. Refusing to accept paintings in lieu of payment, the dealer demands either swift settlement or Marie's hand in marriage.
When a clueless English fop (David Pittu, in one of a handful of zesty comic caricatures) plants the idea that Millet's daubings of peasants in the fields would be worth more if the artist had expired, Millet's cronies hatch a scheme to drive up prices by faking his prolonged illness and subsequent death. However, Millet is too much a livewire to stay in hiding so they disguise him as Jean-Francois' fictitious twin sister, Widow Daisy Tillou.
Betraying an obvious debt to one of the popular hits of the era, "Charley's Aunt," the cross-dressing caper doesn't have the airtight plotting to make it truly exhilarating, but it does maintain a manic Marx Brothers-type ebullience as the hoax yields sudden riches and Daisy's peculiar charms have her fending off marriage proposals from Andre and Leroux.
The most consistent delight is the gifted Butz, who starts out far more low-key than in his unhinged Tony-winning turn in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." But he undergoes a kind of liberatory release when he dons Daisy's ringlets and gets squeezed into her heavily corseted pink frock, as if being incognito forces both the actor and the character's most subversive comic instincts to escape.
Chomping on a cigar or pipe, nervously massaging his fake breasts and fanning his legs with his voluminous skirts, Butz is a riot. He's so utterly relaxed and in command onstage that he appears to be making up Daisy's dialogue as he goes along, shooting disbelieving but slyly self-satisfied double-takes as her statements become increasingly ludicrous. An afternoon tea interlude with Millet's guileless old landladies (Patricia Conolly and the sublimely daffy Marylouise Burke) reaches especially giddy comic heights, as does the second-act shtick involving a glass eye, false teeth and a fake leg.
Among classic drag turns, Butz's work recalls Jack Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot." His discomfort in the disguise seems to wear off in an instant, at which point Jean-Francois starts behaving with casual indifference to the anomaly of the situation. Unaware of the scam, Gambatese's earnest, pure-of-heart Marie responds accordingly, as if hot-and-heavy embraces with her boyfriend's sassy sister were the norm.
Rest of the cast doesn't get quite as much to chew on but Blakemore somehow manages to spotlight them all.
As Millet's ethnically assorted cohorts, fast-talking "Chicago" (Michael McGrath), rotund "Dutchy" (Tom Alan Robbins), who's actually German, and hot-tempered Irishman Phelim (Jeremy Bobb) are as responsible as Butz for keeping the helium rush in the comedy. They also get to have fun with some of the hoariest groaners -- Dutchy, while about to bite into a sausage: "Cheer up, ze wurst is yet to come"; Chicago, preparing to dupe a wealthy art buyer: "We'll take him to the gleaners."
Chicago's romance with Marie's sister Cecile (Bridget Regan) doesn't quite come alive; nor do her attempts, via her own disguise, to uncover the fishy truth about Daisy. But as both characters and cast, the ensemble all get robust employment.
McMartin has some choice comic bits to play, notably when randy old Leroux is overcome with desire for Daisy; and an almost unrecognizable Jennings, with blue-black hair and sinister goatee, is hissable in the best hammy tradition of cartoon villains like Snidely Whiplash or Dastardly.
Blakemore's spry direction is backed by sparkling craft contributions, in particular Peter J. Davison's handsome sets -- Millet's dusty studio in the first act and freshly wealthy Daisy's glistening white Paris apartment in the second -- and Martin Pakledinaz's eye-catching costumes.
The play was spun out from Twain's short story "Is He Living or Is He Dead?," also about Millet faking his own demise for profit. Aficionados of the writer will enjoy spotting self-referential nods to his earlier stories, from a prominently featured dachshund to a man attending his own funeral to pungent cheese substituting for a corpse. But the production's rewards are by no means merely scholarly. Perhaps there's nothing here to make the classic farceurs uneasy in their graves, but given the scarcity of laugh-out-loud comedies on Broadway, this one registers high on the mirth meter.