In what may be the best comic line in the show, David Ives's newly adapted version of "Is He Dead?" is billed as "A New Comedy" by Mark Twain. Well, if 80 is the new 60, and 60 is the new 40, then 110 is new in 2008! Written in 1898 but never before brought to the stage, Mark Twain's "Is He Dead?" is very much alive on Broadway.
A farce complete with cross-dressing, stinky cheese, and a royal con job, "Is He Dead?" is classic Twain done up-tempo by director Michael Blakemore. Condensing Twain's three acts into two, Ives manages not to lose a beat. With the fast-paced exits and entrances, similar to those used by Blakemore in "Noises Off," characters hide, escape, and jump out at precarious moments, leaving one breathless, and wishing that all women could look as adorable as Norbert Leo Butz in drag. Not since Ru Paul, Divine, or Harvey Fierstein has a cross-dressing actor been so hilarious convincing as a gorgeous woman.
Twain's play centers on a fictional depiction of the very real, famous French painter, Jean-Francois Millet, before he was "discovered." The artist has a serious financial predicament in that he owes an unscrupulous art dealer, Bastien Andre, 15,000 francs. Monsieur Andre, a villain who "has a donut where his heart should be," played by veteran actor Byron Jennings, wants his money, or the hand in marriage of the lovely Marie Leroux, daughter of Millet's landlord.
Millet then gives Andre a private showing of works, and offers any painting of his choice as collateral. But Andre is reluctant to buy. The first thing he wants to know is if the painter is dead since everyone knows that artists' works are worth more when the painter is dead than if he's alive. Since Millet is obviously alive, Bastien leaves without taking any paintings, but a hilarious con is sprung.
Millet, played to comedic frenzy by Norbert Leo Butz, stages his own demise with the help of his friends, jacks up the prices of his own paintings, and then "returns" as his long-lost sister, the widow Daisy Tillou in blonde wig and full plumped-up womanliness, to collect the monies.
The conning of the conman is vintage Twain, indeed, and reminiscent of Huck and Jim's dealings with the self-acclaimed King of France on that infamous trip rafting trip down the Mississippi some thirteen years prior to the writing of this play. In what is usually considered Twain's greatest work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck, like Millet, stages his own demise to free himself of the trappings of society. Milletï¿½s disappearance, however, and subsequent discovery, tells us more about fleeting moments of fame and values then and now.
Millet's disguise, and the lengths to which he and his friends go to conceal it, provide an evening of entertainment, along with zings and arrows aimed at those who mistake genius for convenience, and creativity for accident. What the play lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in charm, disarming humor, and a number of good belly laughs.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
""Is He Dead?" may be a scam, trying to pass off copper as gold. But by the time Mr. Butz raises his skirts and kicks up his heels for a final dance of the seven petticoats, there was indeed gold dust in my eyes."
New York Times
"Director Michael Blakemore ('Noises Off') hasn't just awakened the 'Dead.' He and his cast, some of the best comic actors in New York, have turned an old-fashioned, sometimes wobbly piece of material into a delightfully silly and entertaining evening. "
New York Daily News
"Frankly, Twain's play (even with Ives' tinkering) is pretty feeble... Yet Twain (and Ives) have struck it rich with Blakemore, the set designer Peter J. Davison, the costume designer Martin Pakledinaz and a cast that can spin gold out of lead." & "By the time the cast erupts into the crazy dance that constitutes its curtain call, it would be a hard heart that could have resisted such a subtly nutsy ensemble performance."
New York Post
"A bit more than a curiosity but far less than a lost masterwork." & "Blakemore and Ives offer lots of exaggerated comic asides, mistaken identities and multiple doors to hide plot devices. The result reminds me of the sort of annoying person who keeps tickling you until, finally, you're forced to laugh despite your better judgment." & "We're forced to wonder if this would be on Broadway if a living playwright had written it."
"Step aside, "Young Frankenstein." Kneel, ye knights of "Monty Python's Spamalot." Bow low, other Rialto mirth-makers: Right now the funniest man on Broadway is Norbert Leo Butz, a splendid actor and a total riot in "Is He Dead?" & "Twain's admirers won't discover a memorable comedy here, but everybody who laughs their way through "Is He Dead?" is sure to remember Butz's hilarious performance."
"It's a comedy that might be described as classic or wheezing, depending on your taste." & "The writing team of Twain and Ives has conjured a comedy that, if it never really takes off, doesn't sink, either. If you take pleasure in the familiar, in winking at the past, you might enjoy it as it travels down its well-trod path. If you're looking for fresh humor, "Is He Dead?" is probably not for you."
""Is He Dead?" serves as a heartening reminder that comic ingenuity can make even the hoariest material seem fresh and vibrant. I am referring not to Twain but to the blessedly disinhibited man at the center of his play (Norbert Leo Butz)."
New York Sun
"Is He Dead?" did, however, contain a comic idea that, in David Ives's adaptation, has blossomed into a comic play. As directed at the Lyceum on Broadway by the dependable Michael Blakemore and with an expert cast surrounding that slapstick dynamo Norbert Leo Butz, it emerges very comic indeed." & "The guffaws creep up on us slowly at first, only to buffet us with a barrage of sidesplitters."
"Director Michael Blakemore, adapter David Ives and a spirited cast led by human whoopee cushion Norbert Leo Butz have turned this trifle into a ripely enjoyable confection." & "The most consistent delight is the gifted Butz!" & "Given the scarcity of laugh-out-loud comedies on Broadway, this one registers high on the mirth meter."