Reports of the death of Mark Twain’s newest play have been greatly exaggerated.
The American literary master’s most recent stage work is alive, well, and making audiences roar on Broadway. Oddly enough, Twain’s lively comedy is titled Is He Dead?
This play triumphs by poking great fun at the fact that artists often enjoy their greatest successes after they have stopped breathing. Is He Dead? revolves around the real-life painter, Jean-Francois Millet, renown for The Angelus, The Gleaners, The Man with the Hoe, and other revered masterpieces that captured the austere, stoop-inducing labor of 19th-century Gallic farmers. While Millet reproduced the earth tones of rural France, in Twain’s witty work, the most vivid color in Millet’s personal palette is fire-engine red, reflecting the enormous unpaid bills that clog his cramped Paris studio, much like his still-undiscovered and unsold canvases.
As Millet slowly sells his oils, a candle suddenly ignites over a scheming friend’s head: Why not boost the value of these paintings by faking Millet’s death?
Once Millet agrees to this Producers-style subterfuge, the play unfolds, at first, a tad leisurely, but then with the exhilarating hilarity of a Marx Brothers farce. I laughed heartily, and increasingly so, from start to finish. Playwright Jonathan Leaf (who usually emits mild chuckles), sat beside me and repeatedly generated howls that were louder than anything I have heard him express throughout our ten-year friendship.
Is He Dead? is well-served by a first-rate cast, led by Norbert Leo Butz. The uncommonly named, seriously talented stage star plays both Millet and a “relative” who appears in disguise to manage the painter’s business affairs in Paris while he “perishes” in the countryside. Butz won a richly deserved Tony Award in 2006 for his highly extroverted performance in the superb musical, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
Byron Jennings is great fun as Bastien Andre, an unforgiving and conniving creditor who hounds Millet to pay his delinquent debts. Jennings portrays him as a man of almost silent-film-level evil, right down to the menacing moustache. About the only wicked thing he does not do is to tie a damsel to the TGV tracks.
Patricia Conolly and Marylouise Burke are consistently enjoyable as a Madame Bathilde and Madame Caron, two older women who are Millet’s supportive, if nosy, neighbors. Jenn Gambatese is amusing as Millet’s love interest, as is Michael McGrath as a mischievous friend named Agamemnon Buckner. The versatile David Pittu clearly relishes his multiple roles and swift costume changes as, among other things, an art collector, a butler, and the King of France.
Offstage, director Michael Blakemore keeps the pace hurtling along. Blakemore, is a double threat, having won twin Tony awards in 2000 for directing a play (Copenhagen) and a musical (the Martin Beck Theater’s stunning revival of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate). Also, David Ives deserves special credit for adapting Twain’s play to sound fresh to audiences in 2008.
In fact, Twain wrote Is He Dead? in 1898. Though conceived 110 years ago, the play has a contemporary tone, lampooning as it does the still-salient themes of artists’ vanity, collectors’ thirst for those artists’ reflected glory, and the fleeting nature of fame and fortune. Though set in 1846, this piece feels more like a 21st Century satire about the 1800s, not a product of the 19th century itself.
By itself, this comedy’s voyage to Broadway is its own drama. In 1898, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, planned to stage Is He Dead? at London’s Lyceum Theater. But soon afterward, a warehouse fire destroyed many of the theater’s sets, costumes, and props. Stoker scotched the show, and Twain tossed his unproduced, handwritten manuscript into a drawer. It rested in peace until 2002, when Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Stanford University’s director of American Studies, discovered it among Twain’s papers at U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. As soon as Fishkin wiped away the dust, she realized she had extracted a hidden gem from Twain’s oeuvre. And on, to Broadway, it continued.
By coincidence, Is He Dead? is at Manhattan’s Lyceum Theater, an ornate show palace that opened on West 45th Street in 1903. This landmark building’s richly carved wood, elaborate metal fixtures, and sculpted stone adornments all soothe the eyes and elegantly complement Peter J. Davison’s attractively designed sets. As it happens, 99 years before his own play’s world premiere last December 9, Twain sat in the Lyceum Theater as an audience member.
And what of Mark Twain himself? Alas, the reports are true: He is dead.
– Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution.