Where Mark Twain’s “new comedy” Is He Dead? is concerned, it’s a delightful and welcome case of better late than never. Written in 1898, with productions expected quickly thereafter in London and New York, the play never made it to the stage and subsequently gathered dust in a Twain archive until 2002, when it was spotted by Stanford University professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin. The happy hoopla now abounding on the Lyceum stage won’t mean much to the late and sometimes bankrupt Twain’s personal fortune, but it should add to the coffers of Fishkin and the many other participating producers, thanks in large part to the work of adapter David Ives, director Michael Blakemore, and a cast of zanies led by Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz.
Maybe the best way to get a sense of what unfolds on the two spacious and stunning 19th-century Peter J. Davison sets is to imagine the results of mating Brandon Thomas’ Charley’s Aunt with La Boheme and Some Like It Hot, and filtering the blend through the comic sensibilities of Milton Berle and Charles Busch.
The mischievous Twain had the effrontery to appropriate as his main character, the real-life 1840’s Barbizon artist Jean-Francois Millet, and to speculate on what would happen to the prices of the seminal painter’s output if it was announced that he’d turned up his poorly-shod toes. With Millet deep in debt to the evil money lender Bastian Andre (Byron Jennings), he and struggling-artist cronies Chicago (Michael McGrath), Dutchy (Tom Alan Robbins), and O’Shaughnessy (Jeremy Bobb) hastily come up with a plan to fake the artist’s premature death, while keeping the very-much-alive Millet around in cross-dressing disguise.
In doing so, they must convince Millet’s grieving fiancee Marie (Jenn Gambatese), along with her impoverished widower father (John McMartin) and sister Cecile (Bridget Regan), into believing the creature in Martin Pakledinaz’ garish frocks is Millet’s grieving twin sister, the widow Daisy Tillou. Also fooled in the process are spinster siblings Bathilde (Patricia Conolly) and Caron (Marylouise Burke), and the mincing British collector Basil Thorpe (David Pittu), who shells out beaucoup francs for the inflated Millet oils.
Calling Is He Dead? a hoot, which it is, shouldn’t be interpreted as indicating it’s a night of non-stop belly yuks. Twain was a humorist; so for much of the time the developments remain on the broad-smile level. Nevertheless, there are moments of hilarity, some of them extended and none more thigh-slapping than the sequence during which the ingenious pals improvise a way to discourage the leering Bastien, who has developed an eye for the money “Daisy” has acquired as the beneficiary of the Millet’s earthy canvases, from marrying the widow. It’s not for nothing that Davison places a gilt-edged screen in Daisy’s high-ceilinged, multi-doored drawing-room.
The fun-loving, nose-thumbing Twain has a marvelous ally in Blakemore, who directed Noises Off, arguably the best farce ever offered entertainment-hungry ticket buyers. He knows exactly how to maximize the play’s endearing features and how to get tip-top, titillating turns from a smartly cast and hugely talented ensemble. Last seen on Broadway as one of the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Butz, wearing ruffles and sausage curls, plays another adorable scamp. He works his amusingly doughy face and nimble body with risible grace throughout. His colleagues — chief among them an unusually goofy McMartin, vulpine Jennings, bouncy McGrath, and batty Burke — are gorgeously silly. Outstanding in four (really five) roles is Pittu, currently one of the town’s best second bananas.
Responding to a premature newspaper written about him, Twain supposedly cabled from London: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” He can say that again. As long as audiences keep laughing at Is He Dead? — and I expect they will for a long time to come — Twain is alive and well and living in New York.