MARK ONE FOR LITERATURE! MARK TWAIN FOR THEATER! WAIT A SECOND; BETTER LEAVE
IT AT MARK ONE
by John Topping
published December 10, 2007
Is He Dead?
now playing on Broadway at the Lyceum
One of the amusing things about Broadway theater is the distinction between a play that is
appearing on Broadway for the very first time and a play that has already had a different Broadway production before it. The
former is called a "new play" - regardless of how many Off Broadway, regional or foreign productions it's had, or when it was written - and
the latter is called a "revival." Thus, if and when one of Shakespeare's lesser regarded works ever makes its debut on the
Great White Way, it could legitimately be billed as "Pericles, Prince of Tyre - a new play by William Shakespeare." And so
it is now with an American icon of literature with "Is He Dead?", a new comedy by Mark Twain. And not only is this Twain's
Broadway debut, but it is also the World Premiere! Has there ever been a red flag waving more wildly?
Bill Shakespeare is not known for any of his novels. If he ever wrote any at
all, he probably kept them locked up in a trunk. The same is true with Samuel Clemens. Maybe you didn't
even know that Mark Twain wrote plays. Well, it seems that he dabbled in playwrighting, but few, if any, were good enough
to actually stage. "Is He Dead?" is the closest he came to writing a producable, or, in any case, it was the one that was
found and first published in 2003. So the question is ... did someone really believe in this play passionately enough to
rescue it from obscurity? Or was the appeal of producing it the perceived market value of Mark Twain's
name? Or was it an ego trip to be the first to produce Mark Twain's great lost ... er ... his unproduced play that was
found not that long ago? Or was it someone who loved Mark Twain so much that they wanted to bring it to life, whatever the
outcome, come hell or high water?
Now that I have set you up to expect a theatrical disaster, the truth of the matter is,
it's not the worst evening of theater you will ever have in your life. In fact, it's rather entertaining. But
it's clearly not written by a master playwright, and it would never exist at all without Twain's name attached to it. But
it's, you know, it's okaaaay [face squinched up; hand wavering].
“Is He Dead?” is a fictional farce with actual painter Jean-Francois Millet (Norbert Leo
Butz) as the lead character saddled with a debt to pay and the inability to sell his work until he agrees to go along with a scheme faking
his death, after which the value of his paintings skyrocket overnight. He disguises himself as his faux sister, who is managing
the estate. The requisite shenanigans ensue.
Butz’s Millet has very little trouble adjusting to his womanly disguise, and both actor
and character seem to really enjoy wearing the dress and exploring the world as a woman. But Butz and the entire cast have fun
with and make the most of the material they are given. Byron Jennings as Bastien Andre, the villian to whom most of the
town owes money, even exits his first scene with a good old-fashioned evil laugh. Also wonderful is David Pittu – brilliant last season as Bertolt Brecht in “Lovemusik” – playing
most of the small, secondary characters and infusing them with more life and wit than they actually deserve.
The sets by Peter J. Davison – particularly in Act I – are gorgeous, the kind that juts
out into surreal Caligari-esque dimensions, jarring until the eye adjusts to it, that is not uncommon on Broadway but which I haven’t
seen in quite some time.
So there’s all kinds of talent up on the stage, and adequate amounts of amusement, but
nothing that adds up to an evening of vital theater. We’ve all seen cross-dressing, mistaken identity laden, door slamming
farces before. But Twain not only doesn’t elevate it to any genius quality, he barely lifts it up to the
ordinary. My God, listen to me, criticizing one of America’s greatest and one of my favorite authors as if he were a
neophyte who just arrived in town and got an undeserved lucky break. Well, in a sense, that’s not so far off the
“Is He Dead?” has been “adapted” by David Ives for this production. Twain’s
language is hardly archaic to our ears. Does that mean that a lot of excess was trimmed? Does it mean
that a large portion of the laughs belong to Ives, not Twain? The one virtue of this “overdue” staging should have been
that we were given the chance to hear Twain’s words as he wrote them, but that piece of curiosity has been adapted away from
us. Alas, the final question is: Does It Matter?