Theater Reviews

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Lyceum Theatre, New York
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Chin up, all you struggling playwrights. Hang in there long enough, and you'll eventually see your fledging effort produced on Broadway.

Of course, it might take more than a century, as evidenced by this premiere production of "Is He Dead?" a rollicking farce written by a talented up-and-comer named Samuel Langhorne Clemens. You might know him better as Mark Twain.

This theatrical exhumation arrives thanks to a scholar who came across the manuscript while poring over Twain's papers in a California university library a few years back. Written in 1898, the play was unpublished, never produced and essentially had been forgotten.

Now it's being given a spiffy, first-class production in a version that has no doubt been freely adapted by veteran playwright David Ives ("All in the Timing"). While clearly it is no comedic masterpiece from the author of such works as "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Prince and the Pauper," the sheer volume of laughs it produces demonstrates that it's no mere historical curiosity, either.

Set in 1846 France, the play is a pointed satire of the art world in which a painter's works fetch far greater prices when he is dead than when he is alive and kicking. Discovering this to his consternation is Jean-Francois Millet (Norbert Leo Butz), whose career has just about hit rock bottom.

In a last-ditch attempt to get himself out of debt to the villainous dealer Bastien Andre (Byron Jennings) and save his relationship with his loving fiance, Marie (Jenn Gambatese), Milllet and his ragtag group of friends devise a scheme to fake his illness and eventual death to drive up the price of his paintings. Proceeding to then pose as his own grief-stricken twin sister, the artist quickly finds himself in an increasingly convoluted labyrinth of deceptions, not the least of which is his unexpected engagement to a romantically besotted Andre.

Amazingly, Twain's satiric take on his subject matter still feels highly relevant, with the result that "Is He Dead?" doesn't have the feel of a mere period piece. And thanks to the abundant cross-dressing and bawdy farcical humor on display, neither does it have the mustiness that might have been expected.

It helps, of course, that the work has been expertly staged by Michael Blakemore -- who demonstrated with his classic original production of "Noises Off" that he is a master farceur -- and that the cast includes a slew of comedic pros, most notably its leading woman, er, man. Butz, who picked up a Tony for his most recent Broadway outing, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," is perhaps the most viscerally ebullient comic actor on the stage today. Watching him work his magic, especially in a hilarious bit of mime in which he pretends to have a series of fake body parts, is not so much amusing as it is practically life-affirming.

He's well matched by his supporting cast, with some of the standouts being Michael McGrath as Millet's inventive cohort; a wonderfully unctuous Jennings as the villain; the adorable Marylouise Burke and Patricia Conolly as a pair of well-meaning biddies; and the versatile David Pittu in a series of small roles in which he gets to showcase his facility for hilarious accents.

IS HE DEAD?
Presented by Bob Boyett, Roger Berlind, Daryl Roth, Jane Bergere, E. Morten/P. Robbins, J.O'Boyle-R. Stevens, Roy Miller, Sonia Friedman Prods./Ambassador Theatre Group and Tim Levy in association with Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Credits:
Playwright: Mark Twain
Adapted by: David Ives
Director: Michael Blakemore
Set designer: Peter J. Davison
Costume designer: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Music/sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Cast:
Jean-Francois Millet: Norbert Leo Butz
Bastien Andre: Byron Jennings
Papa Leroux: John McMartin
Agamemnon Buckner ("Chicago"): Michael McGrath
Marie Leroux: Jenn Gambatese
Hans von Bismark ("Dutchy")
Tom Alan Robbins
Cecile Leroux: Bridget Regan
Phelim O'Shaughnessy: Jeremy Bobb
Madame Caron: Marylouise Burke
Madame Bathilde: Patricia Conolly
Basil Thorpe, Others: David Pittu

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