Feature

Is He Dead?

The script for this Mark Twain farce lay forgotten in a drawer until its discovery in 2003, said Eric Grode in The New York Sun. You can understand why, as

Is He Dead?Lyceum Theater, New York(212) 239-6200

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The script for this Mark Twain farce lay forgotten in a drawer until its discovery in 2003, said Eric Grode in The New York Sun. You can understand why, as “this unabashedly old-fashioned and somewhat effortful comedy” isn’t one of the great comic author’s finest works. But no playwright could wish for a better Broadway production than the one devised for Is He Dead? by playwright David Ives and director Michael Blakemore. Ives has cut Twain’s original from three acts to two, and eliminated a third of the characters. With “a potent red pen and a sharp ear for period comedy,” Ives captures the go-for-broke spirit of Twain’s original. Blakemore, meanwhile, expertly deploys a large cast of “modern-day vaudevillians” who understand the style as well. It goes to show you that “comic ingenuity can make even the hoariest material seem fresh and vibrant.”

The premise of Twain’s play couldn’t be more outlandish, said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. Twain imagines that the French painter Jean-Francois Millet faked his death to drive up the value of his art, then impersonated his own sister in order to enjoy the profits. Norbert Leo Butz plays the struggling painter (most of the time in drag), facing down a stage full of “cultural and farcical stereotypes” who gather around the newly wealthy “woman.” John McMartin is hilarious as a lecherous old man who can’t keep his hands off the cross-dressing painter, and Byron Jennings “appears to be having the time of his life as a sleek, melodramatic villain.” Surprisingly, it all works, as “jokes you would swear you would never laugh at suddenly seem funny.” Primary credit belongs to the corset-clad Butz. From the moment he first dons his pretty pink dress, “the whole production feels as if it’s been pumped through with nitrous oxide.”

Still, the play quickly grows wearying, said Linda Winer in Newsday. Is He Dead? “reminds me of the sort of annoying person who keeps tickling you until, finally, you’re forced to laugh despite your better judgment.” But audiences shouldn’t forget that Twain “had a point beyond his silliness”—one that remains relevant today. Why, he wondered, does an artist have to die before he can make a living by his art? Yes, it’s nice to have a “new” play by the long-deceased Twain. But “we’re forced to wonder if this would be on Broadway if a living playwright had written it.”

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