What a wonderful surprise! “Is He Dead?” the new Broadway comedy by the master American novelist and satirist Mark Twain is destined to be the sleeper of the season. Directed by Michael Blakemore with an over the top comic style the evening in the hands of a troupe of seasoned New York actors headed by the incomparable Norbert Leo Butz is a hysterically fast paced confection that pokes fun at the art world.
A boulevard farce written in 1898, the play was unpublished until its recent discovery in 2002 by a noted Twain scholar. The story about a struggling artist faking his own death with the help of his crew cronies, so as to drive up the prices of his paintings is a sly critic of the art world, a social commentary that appears to be well ahead of its time. Freely adapted by David Ives the comedy has been given a fresh update making it difficult to distinguish Ives’ contributions from Twain’s originally script, but the references to the pretentiousness in our culture and the hypocrisies found in the art world are clearly from Twain.
Low on cash and with sales virtually non existent the artist Jean-Francois Millet (Norbert Leo Butz) is deeply in debt to a cruel art dealer Bastien Andre (Byron Jennings). Louis Leroux (John McMartin), the father of Millet's sweetheart, Marie (Jenn Gambatese), owes Andre even more money than Millet and with Andre demanding payment now the trio has their backs against the wall. The solution proposed by one of Millet’s friends has the artist faking his death after a long illness and then masquerading as his own twin sister Daisy. Needless to say complications arise in the madcap tale. Spiced with melodrama, disguises, deceit, sexual innuendo and ludicrous situations the satire is a combination of sly wit and broad physical comedy that is a laugh out loud riot.
As the outrageous scheme unfolds under the masterful direction of two time Tony Award winner Michael Blakemore, the evening builds in a crescendo of laugher. Mr. Blakemore certainly knows his way around a farce. One of his biggest hits was the original London and Broadway productions of Michael Frayn's wacky backstage comedy "Noises Off." He is the only director ever to win the Tony award for best direction of a play and a musical in the same season taking the honor with “Copenhagen” and “Kiss Me Kate” several seasons ago. His consummate skill has turned what could have been an old relic into zany delight.
To aid and abet him Blakemore has a marvelous ensemble of 10 spirited actors chewing the scenery with abandoned relish and an outstanding design team to add sparkling highlights, but Mr. Butz, who won the Tony Award fro Best Actor in musical, as well as every other award imaginable including the Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama League Award for his riotous turn in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” cements his reputation as Broadway’s favorite scoundrel. He starts out slow, but once he gets into drag his performance is inspired lunacy and Blakemore manages to spotlight every member of the entire cast along the giddy way.
By: Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
“Is He Dead” opened on December 9, 2007 at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street between 7th and 6th Avenues. Tickets are available by calling Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or online at Telecharge.com or the theatre box office.