Is He Dead? is the "new" Mark Twain play, which rose — phoenix-like — to Broadway from more than a century of dust-gathering neglect in the archives. That it had to wait an extra 19 days before the stagehands strike would let the show go on was a bitter pill.
The Twain had put a strain of Bob Boyett's moneybags, forcing the producer for the second time in one week to parade his players before the press in the lower lobby of the scene of their crime. Then, like The Seafarer Six, cast joined crew, family and a few friends for a private bash (The Twain team got a sit-down dinner at Tavern on the Green).
Just making it to the finish-line was something to celebrate. Of all the new plays stopped at the Broadway starting gate by the strike, Is He Dead? is the only comedy — and an infrequently done farce kind of comedy at that, requiring needlepoint timing and practice-practice-practice. Twain wrote it two years before the turn of the last century, and David Ives adapted it seven years into this century. Worlds of comic style and taste lurked betwixt and between and had to be dealt with for New Millennium audiences. And then you factor in the fact the show is opening with little-to-no advance and relying on the kindness of strange critics whose bail-out bouquets have kept The Seafarer buoyant.
Maybe because of these obstacles, the cast arrived for their Sunday matinee opening in a metaphorical clown-car — ready for broad-stroked action — and piled out of it with highly individualized comic personas. Leading this high-energy assault was Norbert Leo Butz, playing an impoverished Impressionist artist who discovers he can make more money posthumously, prompting him to fake his own death and assume the identity of his widowed sister. There's a funny transformation rip-off of Fredric March's Jekyll-&-Hyde quick-change where, with a few swirls of a quill, he gradually starts to enjoy being a girl.
The artist Butz played was a genuine article, Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1872), who came to fame, acclaim and wealth only after he had died. Twain's farce let him have all that during his lifetime by pretending he had died and cross-dressing him like Charley's Aunt, that old drag war-horse which had charged into theatre existence some six years before. Butz credited his director, Michael Blakemore, for steering him through the treacherous waters of female impersonation — which, it has to be said, comes in big waves and small.
"Michael is a genius at that specific kind of comedy," Butz contended. "In this sort of sleight-of-hand variety-show, he can actually do some magic tricks. He knows how to do 'reveals and conceals,' so he was a big help in that. I love Michael Blakemore because he comes from a time when a theatre actor actually had to have real skills. You had to be able to do comedy, you had to sing a little, you had to dance a little, you had to be able to do tricks — that whole vaudevillian kind of aesthetic that he admires. We're having a ball.
"And he has come up with just the most wonderful cast. You are out there with people who are beyond pros. They're thoroughbreds. You toss the ball to somebody, and you know they're going to pick it right up because everyone's instincts are so impeccable."
There was certainly a united front of fun at the opening — entrance laughs and exit applause throughout for all hands. At the curtain call, their peerless leader, Blakemore, and the co-author in attendance, Ives, were pulled out of the audience and onto the stage — an act that never happened to either before, but they went with the adrenaline flow.
"Usually," said David Pittu, multi-cast for some maximum cutting-up, "opening-night performances are subdued and soggy and not what you want them to be — and I felt we had an evening like that a few days ago — but I did not feel that way today. It was a real party."
"Today," sighed Marylouise Burke, raising those stakes a tad, "was magical." And her playing-partner, Patricia Conolly, couldn't agree more: "Oh, today can't be surpassed somehow. I don't see how it can. Our opening was everything an actor would wish for."
John McMartin, who has Burke and Conolly on his arms in the play, duly noted how well the laughs landed. "It seemed they were all friends out there. I haven't been in a show like this for so long where they laugh all the way through."
And by "they," he didn't mean the actors. "We did all our laughing in the rehearsals. Now, we're just glad we get the response. That's the ingredient for a farce, obviously —the audience — so we ride along on them. I've seen a lot of these actors doing other roles, but, when you get in a farce, you find the greater juices get going and people do outrageous things. It has been a grand experience at farce. Michael's superb at this kind of farce."
Having made it out of the jungles of Elvisland (All Shook Up) and Tarzan and onto a plateau of rarefied farce, Jenn Gambatese was pretty close to seventh heaven in the heroine slot: "I'm loving every minute of it. I'm loving the cast I'm working with. I loved the rehearsal process, working with Michael Blakemore. And, especially, I love getting out there with Norbert and getting to play like that, back and forth. Really, it's great fun.
"It has been like a master's class for me," she continued. "These are actors whom I've admired for a long time who are so exceptionally good at what they do, and I'm with them, and I get to watch them every night. It's educational for me in a lot of ways."
Plus, she's the only female in the cast who is spared facial hair. Bridget Regan is less lucky, playing her sister who turns mustache-twirling sleuth to sniff out the identity fraud going on in the play: "When I was first reading the script after I had been cast, I was reading my first scene as the inspector with Norbert. This is hysterical. It's a man and a woman, and both of them are in drag, which is insane. Who'd think of this stuff? You have got to appreciate the love of drag in this show. It practically qualifies as a theme."
Fresh out of North Carolina School of the Arts (Mary-Louise Parker Country), Regan is making her Broadway debut here — as is (albeit, with an asterisk) Jeremy Bobb, who explained, "I was understudying in Translations, and then I replaced somebody at the end of that run — so I guess my 'debut' was there, but this is the first time I've originated a role on Broadway. Either way, it's a dream come true for me. To jump in and be among this group is amazing. It's an ensemble that, in my opinion, is unmatched anywhere."
Hair and wig designer Paul Huntley contributed mightily to characterizations in the play, as usual — providing plenty of cascading ringlets for Butz to pull at and gnaw on, underlining Byron Jennings' Oil-Can Harry-type villainy with a face framed in pointy black hair — but Huntley didn't do the interviews in the Lyceum's lower lobby. The last time he was there was to get an honorary Tony for lifetime achievement in hair design.
Jennings skipped the interview session as well — the only cast member who did. When you see the cast clustered together in one room, you see how they are all eccentric, eclectic, one-of-a-kind, risk-everything performers. No wonder they mesh so magically on stage!
Blakemore's secret for casting successfully is not unrelated to the fact that he is the only person to win Tonys for directing a musical (Kiss Me Kate) and directing a drama (Copenhagen) in the same year (2000). There is no such line of demarcation in his mind.
"Jay Binder, the casting director, asked if I wanted classically trained actors. I said, 'I'd prefer actors from the musical theatre because I think the musical theatre is a very neglected source of straight acting talent. I've worked with people like Dee Hoty, who seems to me to be a wonderful actress. Musical performers are not considered for straight plays and should be. It's ludicrous to deny them. They're a delight to work with because they are used to disciplined rehearsing. They're used to getting it right and not endlessly sitting around talking about it. To me, it's the same energy and the same precision."
The comedy seems always to be exuberantly on the brink of breaking into song and dance and actually does, deliriously, on a couple of occasions — to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" — allowing Butz a valid opportunity to make at least three different Cagney moves.
Spamalot's Tony-nominated "Patsy," Michael McGrath, joined the hoofing with some slight reluctance. "I dance a little, but I begged for it not to happen," he admitted. "This is the first time that I've done a play on Broadway. All the others have been musicals.
"Michael cast a lot of musical performers in this, and I think it's a good idea because farce comedy is very rhythmic, very musical. Timing and rhythm go hand in hand, and in comedy, that's important. It's an amazing cast. We laughed our fannies off in rehearsal." The simpatico was practically palpable, said Conolly. "The chemistry of this particular ensemble is very well cast on some level. It takes teamwork and a certain technique to play farce, and it's important to have fun. This has been a joy, from the first go-around.
"I've been longing to work with Michael Blakemore. We go back to the days in Australia together. He creates such a good climate for rehearsal. We feel safe in his hands and, therefore, everyone can feel they can invent if he says what to be about, what to present."
"It doesn't get any better than this," injected Burke, who gets to wear her first beard and her first pair of sultan shoes in this show. "We were to open on Nov. 29. That was actually our first day back, and we did a dress rehearsal in the afternoon so we would try to remember how to become sultans and such, and then we went back into our previews. It's a pleasure to get to work now — especially after a strike, but even on an average day."
Butz admitted the strike weighted like lead on his shoulders — being the star of an intricate farce trying to come together with a myriad of issues not nailed-down. "Yeah, I won't lie: It was a very difficult time," he admitted. "I was, at the time, very angry about it. We had two public performances, then we had to go sit at home for three weeks. We had just gotten through tech. It's a very difficult show to tech — very fast, lots of sound cues, very difficult off-stage with the fast changes. Then we all had to go back to Square One."
Happily, there was calmness at the captain's table. "I was very happy with those two previews," Blakemore recalled. "It was troubling, distressing — the strike — but we knew we had something that would please people. If the strike had lasted one week, I wouldn't have minded at all. I thought we had too many previews scheduled before we went in front of the press. I thought we could have done with less — maybe 10 days or two weeks."
Blakemore was also responsible for the play's defining moment, according to adapter Ives: "Michael told me very early on: 'The widow must dance on the coffin.' That was inspiring because it's the symbol for the whole play.
"Otherwise, not much was changed [in previews]. I added four lines of dialogue and maybe adjusted 50 words here and there, but what you see is pretty much what I delivered at the rehearsal."
Ives admitted the original Twain story has been substantially altered and rearranged. "I took as much of Twain as I absolutely could, which was great big chunks. For example, the scene where the widow takes herself apart, is largely Twain. The tea party is his, too."
Butz said he read the original and found it "informative and helpful, but we could not have performed it. I don't know if it's performable. It would be interesting to see if anyone could actually do the entire three acts, 26 characters, incredibly difficult set changes and time shifts that Twain wrote. And I don't know if there's a director who could streamline it enough. He had the central plot of the starving artist whose friends challenge him to don this widow disguise, but he had a bunch of subplots that were very confusing. Twain was brilliant, but he didn't know when to stop — and that's what David Ives did. He cut off fatty deposits and came through with a really lean, fast-driving farce."
Butz owes much of his performance to the petticoats of Martin Pakledinaz. "There were three in the first act and four in the second act," the costume designer said. "It's before they did crinoline, before they did hoops — so you just have to be adding, adding, adding.
"I think we got what we were going for. I got my costume ideas, actually, from the script. The first costume they just tell you is pink, and Blakemore was really great about saying, 'Don't show too much skin' because you'd want to cover up at the beginning. He wants to be sorta demure. But by the second one, she can't help it. In Act I, he's a he. In Act II, she has come to the fore. The great thing was just finding the right color in Act II. Everybody's dressed in mourning clothes for the funeral, except Norbert. I finally said to him, 'There's really no difference dressing you and dressing an older mezzo-soprano.'"
The star turn-out for the opening was on the skimpy side, even for a Sunday afternoon Launch — Marian Seldes (of course), Hal Prince, Karen Mason, homefront support for some of the cast members (Caroline McCormick and Charlotte Moore), friends of the court (Simon Jones and Anne Kaufman Schneider) and playwright Peter Shaffer.
Mason has two holiday shows slated for Dec. 22 at Symphony Space, Karen Mason and Friends: Christmas in the City, the friends being Liz Callaway, Gregg Edelman and The Accidentals. Jones is just back from a performance of a lifetime, introducing Brian Friel's new play, The Home Place, to American audiences at the Guthrie in Minneapolis.
The morning reviews had Bob Boyett and his production associates beaming. Is He Dead? is — as they say in that other new comedy in town — "Alive! It's ALIVE!"