AISLE SAY New York
IS HE DEAD?
by Mark Twain
Adapted by David Ives
Directed by Michael Blakemore
Starring Norbert Leo Butz, Michael McGrath,
John McMartin and Byron Jennings
Lyceum Theatre / 149 West 45th Street
Reviewed by David Spencer
As old plays often do, Is He Dead? takes a while to warm up. Indeed, you spend nearly half the first act wondering what it was that made mounting this obscure, previously unproduced play by Mark Twain worthwhile as anything but an academic exercise. At first it seems no more than a benign and terribly quaint little comedy—set in a town near Paris, circa 1846—about a painter, Jean-Fran¨ois Millet (pronounced mee-OH, Norbert Leo Butz) who is deeply in debt to a usurious, moustache-twirling cad of a money-lender and financier (Byron Jennings) and cannot sell his many masterworks. The villain has also arranged the ruination of Papa Leroux (John McMartin), father to Fran¨oix's intended Marie (Jenn Gambatese), unless Papa agrees to transfer Marie's hand in marriage from the artist to the fiend. Even when an effete British buyer (David Pittu, in the first of several comic cameos) seems interested in the paintings, they're no good to him as an investment, y'see, because the artist is still alive to produce more. Fran¨oix and his stalwart, loyal, internationally flavored buddies, Agamemnon "Chicago" Buckner (Michael McGrath), Hans "Dutchy" von Bismark (Tom Alan Robbins) and Phelim O'Shaughnessy (Jeremy Bobb), have to find a way out of the mess for everybody—but how?
Up to this point, Is He Dead? teeters on the brink of mediocre literary novelty. At best it seems like what might once have been a sharp satire on conventions of melodrama, but with those conventions so long dead that they've become their own parody, it plays to contemporary audience like a comment on a comment; a hat on top of a hat. (Perhaps the one interesting detail; is that Millet was in fact a real artist and in his time a famous one—though virtually everything Twain writes about him, save the specific paintings he refers to, is fabrication.)
Then Chicago suggests that if Millet is worth more dead than alive—then dead he should be! Chicago and the guys will spread the word, in the streets and to the press, that Millet is dying. Millet is not entirely thrilled by this: how can he keep working and oversee everything if he is to be hidden away?
Well, of course, the answer is "easy." Farce easy, which means insane, but it seems like a good idea at the time.
Millet, Chicago proposes, should dress up in drag as his own widowed twin sister Daisy (this, by the way, would be the widowed twin sister he doesn't have). With a combination of reluctance and abandon, Millet agrees.
And now we know why we're here.
It's not that the notion of a leading man in female drag is new; it goes back centuries, and even in Twain's time, the cross-dressing comedy Charlie's Aunt was current. But added to his lampoon of melodrama, the drag element becomes the one additional escalation into absurdity that puts all the author's efforts into perspective, and turns Is He Dead? into a commentary on not only the aesthetic value of art, but of people as being in the eye of the beholder, and often subject to the whim of society.
Granted, none of this goes very deep, and by modern standards, the commentary is too negligible to be meaningful, but it's the dollop of substance needed to provide the point of view that underscores purpose, however frivolous—
—and it provides the point of transformation that turns the character of a bland romantic hero into a comic tornado, if you cast him right...and in this production, director Michael Blakemore and adapter David Ives have. Norbert Leo Butz, though possessed of a style all his own, strikes me as the inheritor of the career Robert Morse should have and would have had if he were less, er um, temperamental. (Morse was likewise a grand farceur, and likewise found his feminine dressup side in the musical Sugar, based on Some Like It Hot.) Mr. Butz is short, intense and utterly fearless. And adorable in frills. A master of mistress, whether doing a double take, seducing a rogue or preening in high dudgeon, he, in his curls, is rather like Goldilocks as an adult diva.
The others in the cast are somewhat at the mercy of the material, which, as it races along, keeps glancing off, but never quite colliding with, disaster, the near-misses owing to the dated familiarity of its plot dynamic and roles that are defined more by archetype profile—and jokes rooted in those archetypes—than by real characterization. Michael McGrath does his sprightly best with Chicago, but his battle for actual laughs is not won terribly often—and since he's one of the better instinctive comedians of his generation, that speaks to the degree of the handicap he's been handed. The other younger performers who aren't in McGrath's comedy league (few are) mostly flail away, in what seems like the effort to balance archetype with at least a dollop of real character; alas, in this play, the latter doesn't exist to support them. By contrast, the old veterans have a much easier time of it: they don't even try for authentic human dimension. They understand how to make a meal out of an archetype by bearing down on selective details and woodshedding distractions like, oh, emotional depth. Mr. Pittu, in his various cameos, never lets an ethnic stereotype escape unexploited by the precise voice and the precise mannerism; Mr. Jennings, as the villain, is as shameless as Mr. Butz's hero, even making his first exit with a roaring laugh of malicious satisfaction. And as for Mr. McMartin whose role shifts him from helpless old poverty-striken coot to lecherous man of means with virtually no written transition save his offstage change of fortune...talk about the deft strokes of a master artist.
One must pause here too to mention how fleetly the dramaturgy is accomplished, in David Ives' streamlining the Twain original from three acts to two, reducing the cast size (and thus providing for some delightful doublings and multiplings, with the audience always in on the gag) and no doubt providing some jokes and quicker transitions of his own. (Here and there one can spot what at least seems like an interpolation—i.e. when Mr. Butz, impressed with another's intuition, says, "Oh, you're good"—but for the most part, the blend is a homogenous one, and you get the feeling that Twain would have not only approved, but been very amused to boot.)
When all is said and done, Is He Dead? isn't really necessary Broadway fare, not for the sake of the street and not for the audience either. It's much fun, but (the noted key performances aside) it isn't that extraordinary, nor is it worth those prices...but it is nonetheless a very wise production in that it brings to light, in a produceable way, a durable farce by a classic brand name of American letters. When it finishes its Broadway run and is licensed out to regional, stock and amateur theatres, it is going to be done everywhere, including schools, and make all involved a pretty penny.
On the bones of a dead man, come to think of it, but I'm not sayin' a word in judgment...