He cemented an enduring reputation as a novelist, short story writer, humorist and essayist, but Mark Twain never cracked the challenge of becoming a playwright, despite multiple stabs. When it was rediscovered in 2002 and published the following year, the unproduced 1898 comedy “Is He Dead?” was greeted as an amusing curio, but reviews seemed to confirm Twain’s suspicion that he lacked the fundamental tools to write for the stage. So it’s a welcome surprise that in its Broadway premiere, 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.
Blakemore knows his way around farce, having scored one of his biggest hits with the original London and Broadway productions of Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” which reinvigorated the genre by matching the comic chaos onstage with even more absurd antics happening backstage among cast and crew.
Twain attempts nothing so complex, but he does ladle on all the required ingredients of outrageous deceit, improbable disguises, cheeky sexual innuendo, silly melodrama and escalating confusion, whipping it all together with humor that mixes rascally wit with broad physical comedy. Ives clearly has had a significant hand in ironing out the kinks, but the irreverent potshots at cultural pretentiousness and the hypocrisies of the art world are typically Twainian.
“I am glad the old masters are all dead, and I only wish they had died sooner,” Twain wrote in 1867. He grants himself that wish by making rural realism heavyweight Jean-Francois Millet his main character and then killing him off (well, not quite) while he’s still a struggling artist. Placing a painter known for the noble simplicity of his work at the center of an elaborate madcap comedy is a big part of the joke.
Sales are slow, and penniless Millet (Butz) is in debt to ruthless picture dealer-cum-usurer Bastien Andre (Byron Jennings). Even deeper in debt is Louis Leroux (John McMartin), father of Millet’s sweetheart, Marie (Jenn Gambatese), who has also turned Andre’s head. Refusing to accept paintings in lieu of payment, the dealer demands either swift settlement or Marie’s hand in marriage.
When a clueless English fop (David Pittu, in one of a handful of zesty comic caricatures) plants the idea that Millet’s daubings of peasants in the fields would be worth more if the artist had expired, Millet’s cronies hatch a scheme to drive up prices by faking his prolonged illness and subsequent death. However, Millet is too much a livewire to stay in hiding so they disguise him as Jean-Francois’ fictitious twin sister, Widow Daisy Tillou.
Betraying an obvious debt to one of the popular hits of the era, “Charley’s Aunt,” the cross-dressing caper doesn’t have the airtight plotting to make it truly exhilarating, but it does maintain a manic Marx Brothers-type ebullience as the hoax yields sudden riches and Daisy’s peculiar charms have her fending off marriage proposals from Andre and Leroux.
The most consistent delight is the gifted Butz, who starts out far more low-key than in his unhinged Tony-winning turn in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” But he undergoes a kind of liberatory release when he dons Daisy’s ringlets and gets squeezed into her heavily corseted pink frock, as if being incognito forces both the actor and the character’s most subversive comic instincts to escape.
Chomping on a cigar or pipe, nervously massaging his fake breasts and fanning his legs with his voluminous skirts, Butz is a riot. He’s so utterly relaxed and in command onstage that he appears to be making up Daisy’s dialogue as he goes along, shooting disbelieving but slyly self-satisfied double-takes as her statements become increasingly ludicrous. An afternoon tea interlude with Millet’s guileless old landladies (Patricia Conolly and the sublimely daffy Marylouise Burke) reaches especially giddy comic heights, as does the second-act shtick involving a glass eye, false teeth and a fake leg.
Among classic drag turns, Butz’s work recalls Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot.” His discomfort in the disguise seems to wear off in an instant, at which point Jean-Francois starts behaving with casual indifference to the anomaly of the situation. Unaware of the scam, Gambatese’s earnest, pure-of-heart Marie responds accordingly, as if hot-and-heavy embraces with her boyfriend’s sassy sister were the norm.
Rest of the cast doesn’t get quite as much to chew on but Blakemore somehow manages to spotlight them all.
As Millet’s ethnically assorted cohorts, fast-talking “Chicago” (Michael McGrath), rotund “Dutchy” (Tom Alan Robbins), who’s actually German, and hot-tempered Irishman Phelim (Jeremy Bobb) are as responsible as Butz for keeping the helium rush in the comedy. They also get to have fun with some of the hoariest groaners — Dutchy, while about to bite into a sausage: “Cheer up, ze wurst is yet to come”; Chicago, preparing to dupe a wealthy art buyer: “We’ll take him to the gleaners.”
Chicago’s romance with Marie’s sister Cecile (Bridget Regan) doesn’t quite come alive; nor do her attempts, via her own disguise, to uncover the fishy truth about Daisy. But as both characters and cast, the ensemble all get robust employment.
McMartin has some choice comic bits to play, notably when randy old Leroux is overcome with desire for Daisy; and an almost unrecognizable Jennings, with blue-black hair and sinister goatee, is hissable in the best hammy tradition of cartoon villains like Snidely Whiplash or Dastardly.
Blakemore’s spry direction is backed by sparkling craft contributions, in particular Peter J. Davison’s handsome sets — Millet’s dusty studio in the first act and freshly wealthy Daisy’s glistening white Paris apartment in the second — and Martin Pakledinaz’s eye-catching costumes.
The play was spun out from Twain’s short story “Is He Living or Is He Dead?,” also about Millet faking his own demise for profit. Aficionados of the writer will enjoy spotting self-referential nods to his earlier stories, from a prominently featured dachshund to a man attending his own funeral to pungent cheese substituting for a corpse. But the production’s rewards are by no means merely scholarly. Perhaps there’s nothing here to make the classic farceurs uneasy in their graves, but given the scarcity of laugh-out-loud comedies on Broadway, this one registers high on the mirth meter.