The final chapters of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” have long sparked controversy among Twain scholars, who concluded that the author, facing writer’s block, tacked on a contrived ending that put a damper on what is nevertheless considered the first great American novel. That thesis is the starting point for Walt Stepp’s “Mark Twain’s Blues,” which has transferred Off Broadway after a limited engagement in February at Altered Stages.
In his final days on the lecture circuit, Twain (Bill Tatum) is confronted by Huck (Lance Olds) and Jim (Barry Phillips) — 20 years older than when we last met them — who proceed to argue with their creator, rethink history (or rather literature), and rewrite the book with the bemused assent of the depressed author.
The variations presented might prove fascinating to Twain scholars, but it seems unlikely many of them will make it to the DR2.
Those who haven’t read Huck for 10 or more years are likely to be baffled by these reconceived scenes from life on the Mississippi. Some are authentic Twain, some all Stepp. In one, the playwright seems to suggest that Huck and runaway slave Jim are brothers.
In addition, the play is overstuffed with 20 songs by Stepp — incorporating Twain’s words — which add variety but inevitably contribute to the production being way too long. However, musical director David Wolfson is an asset at the onstage piano.
The quartet of actors, under Tom Herman’s inventive direction, help keep things interesting. Tatum as Twain looks like a young Hal Holbrook. Olds is a spirited, mid-30s Huck, and Bonne Kramer essays various female roles. But it’s Phillips who stands out as Jim, bringing multiple layers to his thought-provoking portrayal.