New York City Theater
"Is He Dead?"
Lyceum Theatre, Manhattan (Broadway)
It all began with a Westport girl. Shelley Fisher Fishkin (nee Shelley Fisher) graduated Staples High School and went on to become a professor of English and director of American Studies at Stanford University. She also became, in her adult life, a recognized authority on Mark Twain.
It was while researching the Mark Twain archives at the UC-Berkeley library that Dr. Fishkin stumbled on Twain’s comedy “Is He Dead?” Twain, it seemed, had tried his hand at playwriting. She was delighted with the never-staged piece and determined to rescue it from obscurity.
She conveyed her excitement to others, backers were found and a production came into being. Playwright David Ives was brought on board to adapt the play for modern consumption. “Is He Dead?” turned out to be a marketable item, in the view of many, and is now ensconced at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway. (The Lyceum itself, a historic landmark theater built in 1903, was an appropriate choice for the 1898 play.)
All this adds up to significant theater history. But does it make for a successful, entertaining show, on Broadway or anywhere? Does “Is He Dead?” measure up to its promise?
Frankly, the play turns out to be a lightweight and decidedly dated piece. Not that Twain does not have a valid thesis—which is that a painter must be dead to achieve recognition and commercial success. (It is a less valid theme in today’s world, where marketing and promotion are the keys to artistic recognition.) Using this theme, Twain creates the impoverished painter Jean-Francois Millet, who finds success only when his cronies convince him to pretend he is dead. They go on to turn Millet into his twin sister who returns to take charge of affairs. All this has the potential for high-handed farce (think “Charlie’s Aunt,” “Tootsie,” “Some Like It Hot”).
But “Is He Dead?” never quite rises to the challenge, and, as it turns out, this excellent production far outruns its material. The show is blessed with the gifted director Michael Blakemore, who keeps it moving at a brisk pace, with a first-class design team (Peter J. Davison—sets, Martin Pakledinaz—costumes, Peter Kaczorowski—lighting), and with a superb ensemble of actors, led by the incomparable Norbert Leo Butz. As the painter in disguise, Butz gradually evolves, growing from the reluctant male in drag to a fuller human being, including feminine traits which give him a new sense of power. Butz is hilarious as he goes through his antics.
But all told, it remains to be seen whether “Is He Dead?” is merely a footnote in history or a long-run attraction for Broadway audiences.
Dec. 31, 2007