Is He Dead?

Mark Twain, adapted by David Ives
Lyceum Theatre, New York

Production photo

Mark Twain is well known as a novelist and short story writer but, until the recent discovery of Is He Dead?, nobody realised that he was a farceur to rival Georges Feydeau.

There may be fewer dropped trousers and a slightly less risqué atmosphere but there are enough final act doors and laughs to justify the comparison.

In fact, this star vehicle for Norbert Leo Butz is much closer to Brandon Thomas' English comedy Charley's Aunt, in which a young man is forced to dress in women's clothes to gain an inheritance.

The opening scene allows set designer Peter J Davison and his partner on costumes, Martin Pakledinaz, to shine, setting up several artistic tableaux that are entirely appropriate.

The protagonist is Jean-François Millet, a starving French artist in a multi-national Parisian colony in 1846. Though the character that we see is fictitious, the artist was very real, famed for depictions of the hardships of rural life, such as The Gleaners and The Angelus.

This talented humanist and his pals are being bled dry by M. André, an archetypal evil art dealer/usurer, played to perfection by Byron Jennings. This moustachioed man in black will gleefully send the painter into penury but, worse, is owed vast sums by poor, silver-haired Papa Leroux (John McMartin).

The only way out for him is to allow his daughter and Millet's affianced, Jenn Gambatese's Marie, to marry André.

Then, an American, with the one authentic accent of the evening, Agamemnon (or Chicago) has the great idea of killing the artist to get a posthumous price hike. Since Millet wants to stay in town (and on earth), he becomes his own twin sister and there the fun starts.

Every possible variation on this theme is tried and many are spectacularly funny. There are some excellent puns, marriage proposals from two men, a cross-dressing female-male cop with a Clouseau accent and even The King of France before the artist, or at least some limburger cheese, is finally interred.

Butz proves equal to this challenging task, peaking in the scene where he/she finally puts André off forever, demonstrating more bodily afflictions than Nelson.

The actor hams for his life under the direction of a real expert. Michael Blakemore will be well-known to Londoners for his work with Michael Frayn. He has earned his farce spurs many times over and in particular, Noises Off was one of the finest examples of the last few decades.

Is He Dead? may not quite be of that quality with its anachronisms and Americanisms but, thanks to perfect timing and some great acting, will succeed on word of mouth, judging by the audience enthusiasm at the performance under review.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher