'Dead' man tells lively tale, but does Twain need help?

Reaction to play confounds director

Director Michael Blakemore is baffled by some of the reviews of "Is He Dead?"

The play, from a recently discovered manuscript, is being billed as "a new comedy" from Mark Twain. And though critics have praised it, a few complain that Twain's folksy jokes and cornpone puns won't necessarily appeal to modern audiences.

"All of them kind of say, 'We had a great time, although the material's weak,' " said Blakemore, a two-time Tony winner. Although he was speaking by phone, you can almost hear him shaking his head: "You can't make a great evening out of bad material."

The rap on Twain's play, running at the Lyceum Theatre in New York, is that many of its best qualities are attributable to the living. Those qualities include a top-notch cast led by Norbert Leo Butz in drag, Blakemore's deft direction and an adaptation by David Ives, working from a play that once was as meandering as one of Twain's trips on the Mississippi River.

The New York Times' review, for example, said the play demonstrates that "with the right doctors, even a long-buried dinosaur can be made to dance," while the Associated Press praised the teamwork of Ives and Blakemore, calling it "one of the most felicitous collaborations of the season" and cheered the play's "riotously funny second half."

But Ives gives the credit for the play's success to his silent collaborator.

"It's not every day you get the chance to collaborate with a dead American master," Ives said of Twain. "In essence, he gave me the setups and I provided the payoffs."

Twain wrote "Is He Dead?" in 1898, largely hoping that he could recapture the boxoffice success of his play "Colonel Sellers." The play was to have been produced at Bram Stoker's theater in London, Ives said, but it burned down.

"He just tossed the play in the drawer," Ives said.

"Is He Dead?" was rediscovered in 2002 by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, an English professor at Stanford University. The task of adapting it for modern audiences fell to Ives, who is best known for his series of single-act plays "All in the Timing" and for revising and condensing the books of vintage Broadway musicals for City Center's "Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert."

The play, set in 1840s Paris, fictionalizes the nondeath of real-life painter Jean-Francois Millet.

To help himself and his debt-ridden friends, Millet fakes his death to inflate the value of his paintings. He impersonates his imaginary sister, a widow named Daisy Tillou, to collect on his passing. Millet's contrivances grow more absurd until the moment he's caught dancing in drag on his own coffin.

Ives' additions to the script remain true to Twain's original farce, Blakemore said. Ives worked from a story and comedically rich situations that were all Twain's.

The playwright — who carried a Twain key chain even before working on "Is He Dead?" — cut three acts to two and restored a few subplots Twain had allowed to unravel. He staged a scene that was only described in Twain's version: a viewing of Millet's supposed body by the king of France, sultan of Turkey and emperor of Russia.

He also added some of the play's better jokes. One deceived patron of the arts is said to have been "taken to 'The Gleaners,' " a reference to one of Millet's paintings.

"Working with Twain was fun, except for the cigars, which are very stinky. I kept telling him to take them out of the room, but he wouldn't," Ives quipped.

The question with a lost-and-found play by a literary hero is whether even his lesser-known works, such as Millet's paintings in the play, might be better appraised after his death. Ives said it was obvious Twain was conscious of his own mortality as he wrote "Is He Dead?"

At the time, Twain was famous but poor and in his 60s. He had to be thinking about his legacy, Ives said.

"His daughter had just died. He was bankrupt. And the play's all about death and money. When you read the original, it's amazing how much they talk about money," Ives said.

"In fact, I added a line to this play that I think every playwright-writer knows at some point, which is, 'Tell me, lads, how can I paint this and still be starving?' "

Tim Molloy is a reporter for the Associated Press.
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