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Paulanne Simmons

"Is He Dead" is Very Much Alive

SYMPATHY FROM AN IMPOSTER -- In "Is He Dead" by Samuel Clements/Mark Twain, cross-dressing Francoise Millet (Norbert Leo Burtz) embraces the comely Marie Leroux (Jenn Gambatese). Photo by Joan Marcus.

"Is He Dead"
Directed by Michael Blakemore
Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th Street
Opened Dec. 9, 2007
Tues. thru Sat. 8 p.m., Wed. and Sat. matinees 2 p.m., Sun. matinees 3 p.m.
$26.50-$98.50 (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Closes Dec. 23, 2007
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Dec. 13. 2007

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was an American humorist, newspaperman, lecturer and novelist. But he is certainly not known as a playwright. That's because his only play, “Is He Dead?" was written in 1898 and promptly forgotten until recently when it was rediscovered by Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin.

After finding the manuscript amongst the Mark Twain Papers in UC-Berkeley's Bancroft Library in 2002, Fishkin contacted producer Bob Boyett. Eventually, writer David Ives was brought onboard to adapt the play for contemporary audiences. The result is the hilarious comedy that can be seen onstage at the Lyceum Theatre, under the exuberant direction of two-time Tony Award winner Michael Blakemore. And it should stay there a long time.

"Is He Dead?" has none of the biting wit and dark humor that made Twain famous. It is a broad farce that owes more to vaudeville than the legitimate theater.

The irrepressible Norbert Leo Butz plays Francois Millet, an impoverished painter living in a garret, surrounded by his paintings (set designer Peter J. Davison has lovingly filled Millet's studio with the artist's best-known work). In debt to the vicious Bastien Andre (Byron Jennings), who will not accept his paintings as payment, Millet will be unable to wed his love, the comely Marie Leroux (Jenn Gambatese) and keep on painting unless he can find some way out of his financial difficulties.

When the British collector, Basil Thorpe (David Pittu, who is a pleasure to watch in several roles) remarks that “a painter has so much more talent when he's dead," Millet sees a way out. With the help of his two friends, Chicago (Michael McGrath) and Dutchy (Tom Alan Robbins), Millet stages his own death and is resurrected as his sister.

When Butz appears in drag, complete with a curly blond wig and a dress with a cinched waist and flounced skirt, the show really takes off. Butz prances and poses. He pats his cheek with a frilly handkerchief. Often he forgets himself and crosses his legs or sinks into a seat in a decidedly unladylike fashion.

Some of the funniest scenes occur when various male characters (a la "Some Like It Hot") succumb to Millet's charms, principally the feisty Papa Leroux (John McMartin). A subplot involving Marie's sister, Cecile (Bridget Regan), and Chicago, further complicates the comedy. And Patricia Conolly and Mary Louise Burke, as the elderly Madame Bathilde and Madame Caron, Millet's landladies, are delightfully dotty.

Despite an excellent supporting cast, this is clearly Butz's show, and he knows it. Often he seems to be enjoying himself as much as the audience. And Blakemore wisely gives the multiple award-winning actor free rein.

There's nothing particularly new or unique in "Is He Dead?" From Jennings' moustache-twirling wickedness to Butz's bumbling cross-dressing, the comedy uses totally familiar devices. But it uses them all so well one cannot help but think Twain would chomp on his cigar and smile.



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