A stage farce by Mark Twain? You have got to be kidding. Well, why not? One of America’s most beloved writers of short stories, essays, and novels was also a first class stand-up humorist. Twain, however, tried his hand at playwriting to scant success. This un-produced farce, written in 1898 (extracted from Twain’s short story "Is He Living or Is He Dead") and long relegated to the trunk, was resurrected in 2002. Maybe it was good that Twain should stick to his day job until it was time for adapter David Ives to be born, grow up, and come into the picture to seriously edit, rewrite, and reconstruct this contrived relic. With director Michael Blakemore, and the incomparable efforts of a wonderful company of farceurs, Ives has achieved the nearly impossible, by turning what was acknowledged as a seriously flawed play into a very funny romp.
For the first few minutes of the play, your ears may shiver and contract from the hoary, groan-inducing play-on-words that gets the action going. But soon enough you should succumb to the lighthearted lunacy of the situation and the ferociously over-the-top cavorting that sustains it. The impoverished but talented painter Jean-Francois Millet (Norbert Leo Butz) is deeply in debt to Bastien Andre (Byron Jennings), a heartless and unctuous art dealer with a sideline of usury. Also beholden to Andre is Millet’s friend, an elderly painter named Louis Leroux (John McMartin), whose daughter, Marie (Jenn Gambatese), is given the option to free her father from debt if she will agree to marry the cunning Andre.
Marie, however, is in love with Millet. A wealthy English fop and collector, one of many outrageous characters played by the brilliant David Pittu, sets this melodrama-into-farce afire when he suggests that an artist is valued more dead than alive. Millet’s close friends, including "Chicago" (Michael McGrath) and "Dutchy" (Tom Alan Robins) come up with a plan to outwit Andre. Millet must die so his paintings will increase in value and sell. Beginning life anew en travestie (as the French would say; shades of Charlie’s Aunt), Millet is able to deceive Andre by pretending to be his twin sister, Widow Daisy Tillou. The plot spins into the expected convolutions so that Daisy finds herself fending off not only Andre but Leroux as ardent suitors.
Butz, who won a Tony for his manic performance in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," is a hoot in flame-red ringlets, billowing frocks, and unstable cleavage, all the while sweating his way from one outrageous predicament to the next. Also adding to the fun are the sublimely ditsy performances of Patricia Connolly and Marylouise Burke, as Millet’s clueless landladies. Funniest bit of all is Butz amorously embracing the lovely Gambatese, who doesn’t realize that she is a he. Peter J. Davison has designed some lovely settings and the costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are particularly becoming on the full-figured Butz.HH
"Is He Dead?," Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street. $26.50 to $98.50. 212-239-6200.