Monday, December 10, 2007

Is He Dead? Not Even Close Among Critics

Is He Dead? Not Even Close Among Critics

Yesterday afternoon, Mark Twain's long-lost unpublished work (at least until 2003) Is He Dead? opened at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre.

Adapted by David Ives and helmed by Michael Blakemore, the comedy stars Norbert Leo Butz as French realist painter Jean-François Millet, along with Jeremy Bobb, Marylouise Burke, Patricia Conolly, Jenn Gambatese, Byron Jennings, Michael McGrath, John McMartin, David Pittu, Bridget Regan and Tom Alan Robbins.

Critics' reviews are in, and most seemed to enjoy the work almost as much as I did.

Cheering the play's "remarkably sprightly step" that left "gold dust" in his eyes, Ben Brantley of The New York Times can never be accused of having no sense of humor again: "Is He Dead?, which opened last night at the Lyceum Theater, benefits mightily from a top-grade team of resurrection artists. They include the director Michael Blakemore, the playwright David Ives (who adapted Twain’s script) and an infectiously happy cast, led by the wondrous Norbert Leo Butz, that serves a master class in making a meal out of a profiterole....[O]nce Mr. Butz puts on a pink dress, this Tony-winning comic actor...who had been rather flavorless in his opening scene, shows the true comic genius of which he is made. From that moment the whole production feels as if it’s been pumped through with nitrous oxide. Jokes you would swear you would never laugh at suddenly seem funny."

Registering "high on the mirth meter" for David Rooney of Variety, he echoes the enthusiasm: "it's a welcome surprise that in its Broadway premiere, director Michael Blakemore, adapter David Ives and a spirited cast led by human whoopee cushion Norbert Leo Butz have turned this trifle into a ripely enjoyable confection....Ives clearly has had a significant hand in ironing out the kinks, but the irreverent potshots at cultural pretentiousness and the hypocrisies of the art world are typically Twainian....The most consistent delight is the gifted Butz....Butz is a riot. He's so utterly relaxed and in command onstage that he appears to be making up Daisy's dialogue as he goes along."

Praising it as "riotously funny," the Associated Press' Michael Kuchwara heaps on the laurels: "Done up in drag, (Butz) is the fireplug who jump-starts Is He Dead? — a long-lost Mark Twain farce adapted by David Ives and directed by Michael Blakemore with a sure ear for language and an even surer eye for physical comedy. Their teamwork is one of the most felicitous collaborations of the season....Best of all is David Pittu, who in a variety of roles, plays a foppish English art buyer, an unctuous manservant and the king of France. Quite a range -- and all of them immensely comic."

Calling it "very amusing," Joe Dziemianowicz of New York's Daily News is also singing praises for the Dead: "Director Michael Blakemore (Noises Off) hasn't just awakened the Dead. He and his cast, some of the best comic actors in New York, have turned an old-fashioned, sometimes wobbly piece of material into a delightfully silly and entertaining evening....Headlining the cast, Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz...proves that in pants or a dress, he's Broadway's finest, funniest and most appealing rascal."

Feasting on a "barrage of sidesplitters," Bloomberg's John Simon is similarly taken: "As directed at the Lyceum on Broadway by the dependable Michael Blakemore and with an expert cast surrounding that slapstick dynamo Norbert Leo Butz, it emerges very comic indeed....It is hard to say which is funnier as Butz plays the widow: his successful travesty of femininity or his hilarious lapses out of it....Byron Jennings's caricature of a melodrama villain, like John McMartin's amorously dithering elder, add welcome touches of Daumier to the Millets on display. David Pittu, as a quartet of farcical characters, conjures fourfold fun."

Concluding that its "subtly nutsy ensemble performance" is hard to resist, New York Post's Clive Barnes offers two and a half stars: "Frankly, Twain's play (even with Ives' tinkering) is pretty feeble....Yet Twain (and Ives) have struck it rich with Blakemore, the set designer Peter J. Davison, the costume designer Martin Pakledinaz and a cast that can spin gold out of lead. Of his own paintings, the real-life Millet observed: "I make the trivial an expression of the sublime." And that pretty much sums up what Blakemore, Butz & Co. achieve here.
Critics seem to enjoy it almost as much as me.

Once again, Newsday's Linda Winer is having none of it, try as she might not to laugh: "Is He Dead? is a bit more than a curiosity but far less than a lost masterwork....Blakemore and Ives offer lots of exaggerated comic asides, mistaken identities and multiple doors to hide plot devices. The result reminds me of the sort of annoying person who keeps tickling you until, finally, you're forced to laugh despite your better judgment. We suspect that Twain, bankrupt at 63 and depressed by the death of his daughter, was going for more than goofy humor here. He wondered why artists had to die in order to succeed. We're forced to wonder if this would be on Broadway if a living playwright had written it."

With only the big Winer providing the wurst of the reviews -- sorry, I had to throw that in given the comedy's sausage joke -- expect the box office to boom with audiences clamoring to have fun again at the theatre.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:

Is He Dead? (The SOB Review) (December 10, 2007)
Resurrected Is He Dead? Opens (December 9, 2007)
Discounted Is He Dead? Is Alive Again On Broadway (December 1, 2007)
All Of Great White Way Gleams Tonight (November 29, 2007)
Never Say Never The Twain Shall Meet (August 1, 2007)

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