Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 9, 2007
Is He Dead? A New Comedy by Mark Twain. Adapted by David Ives. Directed by Michael Blakemore. Set design by Peter J. Davison. Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Music and sound design by David Van Tieghem. Hair and wig design by Paul Huntley. Dance sequences by Pamel Remler. Starring Norbert Leo Butz, Michael McGrath, Jenn Gambatese, Tom Alan Robbins, Bridge Regan, Jeremy Bobb, Maylouise Burke, Patricia Conolly, David Pittu. Also Strring Byron Jennings and John McMartin.
With the opening of Is He Dead?, it can at last be told that the gifts Twain displayed as an orator, humorist, novelist, and pundit did not extend to playwriting. Given Twain’s enduring career across so many media, one can forgive this blissfully unfunny foray into farce that was only unearthed and published for the first time less than a decade ago. That the play’s world-premiere production at the Lyceum has been hammered and wrenched to meet the simpler standards of 2007 instead of plied with the more holistic and delicate approach the 1898 play demands is harder to smile away.
One thing is clear, though: Without some form of treatment, Is He Dead? would not be playable on Broadway today - or anywhere else at any time. Twain’s listless and sloppy original is understuffed with content and overloaded with characters in ways that don’t hint at the precision or economy he brought to his best-known works. The relatively simple story finds poor Barbizon artist Jean-François Millet pretending to be dead and dressing up as a female caretaker (the widow Tillou) so that his extant works will skyrocket in value. Millet doesn’t count on the effects of this ruse on his betrothed, Marie, or on the men he’ll attract as Tillou, but that’s an intended part of the fun.
Unlike Brandon Thomas’s delightful farce Charley’s Aunt, which premiered only six years earlier and serves as a spiritual older brother (or sister?) for Is He Dead?, Twain’s play never blooms into comedic brilliance. Twain takes his customary swipes at targets like the art world, the hoi polloi, and of course the French; he even gently riffs on his own writings, such as Following the Equator and The Invalid’s Story, in detailing his plot. While perhaps fresh concepts at the turn of the 20th century, they barely raise an eyebrow at the been-there-done-that-saw-The-Producers turn of the 21st.
In trimming away some three dozen supporting players and reducing three acts to two, adapter David Ives has understandably escorted Twain’s play into line with modern expectations. He hasn’t reduced much of the stereotypical humor on which it’s constructed (Millet’s friends Agamemnon Buckner, Hans von Bismarck, and Phelim O’Shaughnessy are at best caricatures and at worst offensive) or injected many more laughs into an evening that throttles about on its gentle geniality. But if there’s a loss of some of the unpredictable richness, little permanent harm is done.
The same can’t be said of director Michael Blakemore, who’s spattered the show with shabby-retro hipness that recalls a South Park interpretation of Salvador Dali rather than a rendering of germane provenance. There is not to be found, anywhere in the production, a performance of substance, or a single other element that disrupts or disputes nostalgia instead of embracing it wholeheartedly. (Peter J. Davison’s sets and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are just as forced-perspective as Blakemore’s staging.)
Characters like Marie (Jenn Gambatese) and her sister Cecile (Bridget Regan) have been realized as bobble-eyed, flute-voiced innocents that mock femininity without embodying it. Rather than emphasizing the girls’ father as a man equally kowtowed by grief and beauty, John McMartin plays him as the epitome of every lecherous, mutton-chopped, old-man trope that stopped being funny about the time Is He Dead? was lost. The superb comic actresses Patricia Conolly and Marylouise Burke, billed as Millet’s busybody landladies, have been instructed to play only themselves - except in one scene where they play the Emperor of Russia and the Sultan of Turkey as if escapees from Madame Tussaud’s.
This makes Is He Dead? less new and fun than creaky and musty. Every grimace, pose, and mug fails to acknowledge that acting has evolved since 1898, and none does any favors to a play in desperate need of all the honesty and understatement it can get.
These two qualities are antithetical to Blakemore’s take, as well as the performance of the ostensible star, Norbert Leo Butz. In a role demanding good-natured light-footedness, Butz delivers heavy-handed neuroticism and not a trace of the hunger or vulnerability that must characterize both Millet and Tillou for the ruse to convince. The only times you believe his plight are when he hitches up his skirts to address the discomfort of the unfamiliar, constricting clothing he’s been forced to wear - the rest of the time, he more readily resembles his Tony-winning schlub Freddy Benson (from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) than either a grieving woman or a starving artist.
Only Byron Jennings proves an ideal match for his role. As Bastien André, the suave monster equally interested in taking advantage of Millet’s untapped talent and Marie and Tillou’s unfettered beauty, his black clothes, grease-smothered hair, and cackling manner suggest he’s about to tie someone to a railroad track. But Jennings never lets all that exterior broadness creep inward; even at his most dastardly, André is somehow grounded in principle in a way no one else in the production ever is.
At the performance I attended, Jennings so successfully trudged through André’s gleeful evilness that he received not only fervent exit applause but also exit hissing, which itself has been out of fashion for the better part of a century. Jennings’s minor dip into melodrama would be more effective if he weren’t surrounded by a cast and director who were trying to recapture the art of the era without the soul necessary to animate it today. But because he is, Is He Dead? is D.O.A.