Monday, December 10, 2007

Is He Dead? (The SOB Review)

Is He Dead? (The SOB Review) - Lyceum Theatre, New York, NY

*** (out of ****)

If America's quintessential humorist Mark Twain is looking down on Broadway's Lyceum Theatre these days, he's no doubt enjoying quite a laugh. I know I sure did in spades.

His last produced play -- a bomb called Colonel Sellers As A Scientist -- was DOA when it opened and closed the same day on an earlier Lyceum stage in New York City back in 1884.

It seems apropos that less than one year after first letting the world know in 1897 that "The report of my death was an exaggeration," Twain would write a play Is He Dead? that practically went to the grave with him in 1910.

The irony of course is that nearly 100 years later, Twain is most definitely alive and -- well -- well once again on Broadway thanks to the discovery and resurrection in 2003 of the comedy that's at once bully good and full of real belly laughs.

This roaring ripsnorter has been successfully resuscitated via master defibrillator Michael Blakemore, whose proficient hand delivers exactly the right electric jolt needed to bring David Ives' adaptation completely to life. As the Tony winning director demonstrated via Noises Off, he clearly knows his way around a good farce. And despite the play's age, Blakemore ensures that it doesn't feel like some moldy oldie or in desperate need of disinfectant (unlike the rancid Broadway revival of The Ritz that closed last evening).

Is He Dead? is a spirited, fantastical romp that reimagines how the great French realist painter Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) achieved fame and fortune. Unlike Aaron Sorkin, who's infamously been accused of turning fact on its head in a little Rialto show that opened last week, Mark Twain made no pretense about fictionalizing his subject's life. Instead, Train freely admitted that he had "'taken the pardonable liberty to highly antedate' the bidding wars over Millet's Angelus that had occurred after Millet's death," according to Shelley Fisher Fishkin's fascinating book about her discovery of the long lost script for Is He Dead?

Since others had been prone to exaggerate Twain's own death, not long after the 1896 loss of his 24 year old daughter Susy, Twain was in need of some rejuvenating tonic to bring his own spirits up. According to Fisher Fishkin, he largely succeeded in that task when writing Is He Dead?

Twain fantasizes that Millet (an outrageously flamboyant Norbert Leo Butz) has an epiphany. His works would be worth more if he was dead. With a trio of conspirators in Agamemnon "Chicago" Buckner (Michael McGrath aping Nathan Lane), Hans von Bismarck (a terrific Tom Alan Robbins, who makes the most with the wurst jokes) and Phelim O'Shaughnessy (a naturally gifted comedian Jeremy Bobb), Millet fakes his own death only to come back as his own "identical" sister, the Widow Daisy Tillou (that's "to you" to you).

As the Widow Daisy, Millet reaps the windfall as the price of his paintings skyrockets, even upon the news of his supposed mortal illness. Daisy shares the largess with Papa Leroux (an exceptional John McMartin) --father of Millet's beloved Marie Laroux (an iridescent Jenn Gambatese) -- whose stratospheric debts to the dastardly Bastien Andre (a most amusing Byron Jennings) threaten to cast him in the street.

Months later, Millet is living in style, as are his friends -- certainly aided by Peter J. Davison's glorious set design and period costumes by Martin Pakledinaz. Yet success is dampened by Andre, who holds a contract with Millet for 25 of his paintings, which he now demands since they've increased exponentially in value. Unless, that is, if Daisy agrees to be his wife.

Through plenty of predictable plot twists, as well as unexpected turns that'll have you wondering whether Twain may have been favorably inclined to the notion of Boston Marriages, Is He Dead's best asset is the biggest surprise: the hysterically funny David Pittu. With amazing finesse and superb comic timing, Pittu portrays four wide-ranging foils, thus giving Butz a run for his funny money. He ends up summarily stealing the show.

Is He Dead? may possess many good old-fashioned one-liners, but it's more than just some amusing little chestnut come back from the dead. The work succeeded in making me laugh out loud early and often, making every inch of me feel, well, alive.

And isn't that what a decent comedy is supposed to do?

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.

Related Stories:
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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At 10 December, 2007, Blogger Esther said...

So glad you had a good time! It does sound like a lot of fun. It's kind of ironic that Twain achieves success on Broadway long after his death with a play about a painter who fakes his death to achieve success. And I really enjoyed David Pittu in "LoveMusik." I thought he was a surprisingly funny Bertolt Brecht.

At 10 December, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, I was so surprised by how frequently I laughed out loud. It's a good solid show.

As for Pittu, I've only seen him previously in Parade so for me, his humor was a revelation.


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