December 12, 2007

"Is He Dead?" Is Delightfully Alive!

How can you not like Mark Twain? His novels, particularly the great “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, were bestsellers in their day and progenitors of the Great American novel, and they're still smart and funny. He was a devoted father, an adoring husband and a great raconteur with a wide circle of friends and an international following. He had an iconic sense of style and an innate sense of decency. Of course, like everyone, he had his faults; his was being notoriously bad at managing money but even then, he was the kind of guy who, when he went bankrupt, paid back all his debts even though it took him years to do it. After reading his biography a couple of years ago, I developed a crush on him.

Still, I had my doubts about seeing the new Broadway production of Is He Dead?, the play that Twain wrote in 1898, but that was never produced and that was pretty much lost until a Stanford English professor discovered it in an archive five years ago. But I was curious too and so last week, I went with my friend Ann, a good sport who is up for any adventure, to see it. Hedging our bet, we had pre-show burgers at Angus McIndoe, the Broadway hangout that almost always guarantees a good time. Then, we crossed over to the east side of Broadway to get to the gorgeous old Lyceum Theatre where Is He Dead? is playing and where, it turns out, we had an even better time.

Is He Dead? isn't a great play but, as adapted by David Ives, directed by Michael Blakemore, and performed by a wonderfully game cast, it is great fun. Twain's tale takes the life of Jean-François Millet, a real-life 19th century French artist, and reimagines what would have happened if the impoverished painter had faked his own death in order to sell his works to a fickle public that only seems to appreciate artists when they're dead. The result is a farce filled with mistaken identities, cross dressing characters, mustachioed villains, clueless foreigners, silly jokes, sight gags and, of course, lots of slamming doors.

Ives, who has retrofitted 19 musicals for the Encores! series, and Blakemore, who directed the original production of the classic Noises Off and knows his way around a farce, whip all of these elements into a delightful confection that deftly captures the Twain aesthetic. There are also terrific performances from Byron Jennings, David Patu and Marylouise Burke. But the show's secret ingredient is its star, Norbert Leo Butz.

The funny thing is I wasn't all that impressed with Butz the first time I saw him, as the cute boy toy both witches wanted in Wicked. But I was knocked out by his Tony-award winning performance as the manic con man in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; and he was even more hilarious when Jonathan Pryce joined the cast and the two seemed to push one another to dizzier heights of do-anything-for-a-laugh zaniness.
Like Nathan Lane, whose comic brilliance often improves the roles he plays, Butz seems to work best when there's room for him to let his talents fly without restraints. Ives and Blakemore have cleared the decks for him and Butz is more delightfully antic than he's ever been, the play is better than it should have been and the audience is more entertained than it thought it could have been.

Historians speculate about why Is He Dead? was never produce during Twain's lifetime. Here's my thesis: Twain, a man with a great respect for the power of humor and a popular lecturer who drew thousands to his talks, knew what it took to be a crowd-pleaser and so he simply waited until an actor came along who could make his play one. And, of course, as he knew, death makes no difference, it just makes us appreciate his artistry more.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for doing your blog. I live out of town now and it's so helpful to have your voice in helping me pick which plays to see!

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks so much for the kind words and for taking the time to leave them. I hope you get to the city soon because there really are some good shows to see. And once you see them, feel free to leave a comment or two on what you thought of them.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Jan, You and I are in sync on this show. I went in with low expectations and came out beaming. I laughed out loud a lot.

As for Norbert Leo Butz, I can still remember when I first saw him on stage. It was as the Emcee in the touring production of the Sam Mendes-helmed Cabaret. He was absolutely brilliant, delivering the kind of performance you'd expect from a Tony Award winning actor. I'm pleased he now has his Tony, and wonder if he's on his way to another nod.