“Is He Dead?,” the Mark Twain comedy recently unearthed by scholars, now on Broadway, will have a great afterlife in summer stock and community theater. The show provides a fistful of laughs, has a silly, yet gratifying plotline, plum roles for actors and actresses, and the chance for the star to play in drag. What more could middle American want?
This is not to detract for what we see on the Lyceum stage, but an acknowledgement that “Is He Dead?” is more a humorous bauble rather than a side-splitting pearl.
The show’s setup revolves around the fact that the paintings of dead artists bring in more money than live ones. Building on this premise sets Twain’s action in motion, mostly to entertaining effect. “Is He Dead?” is not a Neil Simon gag-a-minute laugh fest, but a more cheerful, clownish affair. What makes the production a success is a top notch cast and tight, yet playful, direction by Michael Blakemore.
The performers are led by a slimmed down Norbert Leo Butz as Jean-Francois Millet, France’s greatest painter, when dead. Butz is gregarious, looney, and self-indulgent—ingredients that add up to a near riotous spectacle. John McMartin’s Papa Leroux, near death in Act I, transforms to a lecherous old goat in Act II to comic perfection. Michael McGrath is more understated than in some of his better roles, but his Agememnon sets in motion the play’s premise and presides over the action like a seasoned ringleader. Jenn Gambatese as Millet’s love interest, Marie, is vulnerable and endearing; and Byron Jennings, a cross between Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless and a moustached Wild West villain, plays art dealer, Bastien Andre, with just the right amount of slimy ooze. Special kudos, however, go to David Pittu. Playing multiple cameo roles, one more hilarious than the next, Pittu energizes the proceedings without halting the action. Without his talented turn “Is He Dead?” would not be half as funny. The rest of the cast contributes soundly making “Is He Dead?” a satisfying production.