Is He Dead?
Highjinks and hilarity rule the evening in Is He Dead?, a mischevious romp currently playing at the Lyceum Theater. Starring Norbert Leo Butz, the play tells the story of Jean Francious-Millet, a struggling painter who, in an attempt to raise the prices of his paintings, spreads rumors of his own death and promptly rises to fame and fortune. Throughout his rumored illness and death, Millet disguises himself as his own widowed sister, Daisy Tollou. What ensues is a show of classic comedy resulting from mistaken identities, romance, and a top-notch performance by Butz, who firmly centers himself as one of Broadway’s most talented leading comedic actors (who is also capable of pulling off a corset).
The show’s script, originally written in 1898, was discovered in the University of California at Berkley’s library in 2002 and was adapted by playwright David Ives. The show combines two of the elements that Twain excelled at – madcap, almost vaudvellian comedy and biting satire – into a show that manages to teach, preach, entertain and induce an audience to tears of laughter.
The teaching and preaching – about artistic value, true talent and the commercialism that is inevitably intertwined with art – is almost lost in the laughter of the show, the majority of which results from Butz’s stellar performance as Millet. Butz spends the majority of the show dressed as a woman, decked out in ringlets and ruffles. Drawing on his superb physical comedy skills, which were first viewed in his leading role in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Butz’s attempts to adopt womanly mannerisms – everything from how to sit while wearing a hoopskirt to rejecting the advances of an over-enthusiastic suitor – are heroic – and completely successful. While Butz appears somewhat passé as the male Millet, the moment he dons the pink petticoats of his alter-ego, the real performance begins. His antics are energetic and his energy is endless.
Much of the show relies on the audience’s appreciation of the irony in script, and the level of humor that the irony is brought to. The collaboration between Twain and Ives’ humor borders between exaggeration and vulgarity, but this performance, briskly directed by Michael Blakemore, maintains that balance beautifully. (One of the highlights of the evening comes from a scene when “Daisy” attempts to scare a man out of proposing to her by pretending that “her” body is made up of various false parts. Not many men or women could say, “Get me my glass eye,” with such a straight face).
At times the humor borders on being brash or kitsch, relying heavily on stereotypes personified by Millet’s trio of students and friends – an American (Michael McGrath), a German (Tom Alan Robbins) and an Irishman (Jeremy Bobb) (and a long-running joke about the potent stench of Lindberg cheese). Joining these three are a superb supporting ensemble, including MaryLouise Burke and Patricia Connolly as Millet’s matronly landlords and Jenn Gambatese as Millet’s fiance. David Pittu shines in several roles and as does Byron Jennings, who is clearly having all too much fun as the black-cloaked villain, complete with a twisted moustache and evil laughter. His evident glee in his performance is not alone onstage; it is obviously shared by the entire cast. While plotting their scheme to get rich, they break into song and dance, carousing like energetic school boys. They may not be in school anymore, but these boys are clearly having a grand old time.
So grand, in fact, that the moral of the script is almost lost in the laughter, but faint echoes of it remain after the curtain falls and the audience has lost its breath. Artistic value is a frequent topic of discussion with Broadway audiences – at the opening night party of a show or a gallery, no doubt.