Saturday, December 08, 2007

A Death Over 100 Years in the Making

It's probably a good thing that Is He Dead?, written by Mark Twain in 1898, hasn't been performed until now because it's hard to imagine any actor in those 109 years could be as captivating as Norbert Leo Butz. The play, directed by Michael Blakemore, officially opens today (although the Playbill still lists the pre-strike opening night, November 29) at the Lyceum Theatre. In 2002, Stanford University English Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin rediscovered the Twain play and brought it to producer Bob Boyett, who recruited David Ives for the adaptation (Jesse Green wrote a fascinating article on the process from the discovery to the production for the New York Times).

In the play, French painter Jean-Francois Millet (Norbert Leo Butz) can't sell a painting. When a snooty English man (played to comic perfection by David Pittu) wants to buy one of his paintings and then changes his mind upon realizing that the painter is still alive, Millet realizes that the only way for an artist to be successful is to die. His friends help him fake death, forcing Millet to pose as his widowed sister handling his affairs.

There is nothing particularly original or groundbreaking here, but then again most of it was written over a hundred years ago. Still, it's rare to find a show this funny that never loses its momentum. This is in large part due to the Butz, who bounces around the stage in drag with the same energy he displayed in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The supporting cast is just as engaging, especially Byron Jennings as the villainous Bastien Andre, complete with wicked laugh, and Pittu as four minor characters with a variety of accents. Even Jenn Gambatese was able to redeem herself from memories of the disappointing Tarzan with her performance as Millet's simple lover.

Aside from the problem of the multiple doors not staying shut, Peter J. Davison makes fantastic use of the vast stage with his set design. The cluttered effect of paintings everywhere makes the stage look much smaller in the first act, in contrast to the grandiose white room of the second act, when the characters have money.

Time will tell how successful the play is with critics and audiences, but with the all-star treatment Is He Dead? is getting, it's hard not to see parallels between Millet and Twain, who was just coming out of bankruptcy when he wrote this. I guess the answer to the question is that no, an artist is never really dead as long as his work lives on.