The elegant 1903 venue was open in Twain's lifetime, and seems a proper home for this newly-shaped (by playwright David Ives and director Michael Blakemore) play that has none of the darkness of Twain's death-spiked classic, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
This is a pure comedy — a fictional, farcical Paris-set yarn about a young painter, the real-life Jean-François Millet, who fakes his death to score fame and fortune. Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz, who proved he was not afraid to be shameless and low in Broadway's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, is the corpse in question. In Is He Dead?, Butz cross-dresses (as Widow Tillou) in the tradition of Brandon Thomas' Charley's Aunt, a smash drag-frilled comedy from Twain's era. Humorist-essayist-novelist Twain (born Samuel Langhorne Clemens) lived 1835-1910.
Blakemore, the celebrated director of Noises Off, Copenhagen, Democracy and City of Angels, told Playbill magazine, "Is He Dead? is a much better play than Charley's Aunt, which I recently read and found parts of it making no sense at all — whereas Twain toward the end of Is He Dead? goes for a kind of madness with an exorbitant exuberance that is almost surreal, yet is based on real premises."
He added, "I read the Twain without realizing that Jean-François Millet was a real person. It seemed so preposterous — a play about a painter who dresses up as a woman. And then I realized that I'd been to the Royal Academy about ten years before, and seen an absolutely brilliant exhibition of Millet. But, of course, Twain takes great liberties; not a word of it is true."
The cast that will open the show Nov. 29, after previews, includes Jeremy Bobb (Translations), Marylouise Burke (Into the Woods), Patricia Conolly (Enchanted April), Jenn Gambatese (Tarzan), Tony Award nominee Byron Jennings (Inherit the Wind), Tony Award nominee Michael McGrath (Spamalot), four-time Tony Award nominee John McMartin (Grey Gardens), Tony Award nominee David Pittu (LoveMusik), Bridget Regan and Tom Alan Robbins (The Lion King), plus Peggy J. Scott, Liv Rooth, Wilbur Edwin Henry and Sheffield Chastain. According to the producers, "In this newly discovered Mark Twain comedy, the original master of American humor dishes out a sly critique of the art world with acerbic wit and social commentary well ahead of his time. Is He Dead? is a fast-paced play about a struggling artist who stages his own death to drive up the price of his paintings. As the riotous scheme unfolds, Twain poses daring questions about fame, greed and the value of art, and pokes his signature, mischievous fun at everyone involved."
Written in 1898, Is He Dead? remained unpublished until it was rediscovered in 2002 by noted Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Among other tweaks, Ives (All in the Timing, Polish Joke) has turned the three-act comedy into a two-act.
Is He Dead? is produced on Broadway by Bob Boyett, Roger Berlind, Daryl Roth, Jane Bergère, E. Morton/P. Robbins, J. O'Boyle-R. Stevens, Sonia Friedman Productions/Ambassador Theatre Group, Tim Levy, in association with Shelley Fisher Fishkin.
Fishkin, a professor of English and American Studies at Stanford University, came across a drawer of forgotten Mark Twain plays in the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley.
"I started reading," the professor told Playbill magazine, "and suddenly, there in the library, found myself giggling. Twain wrote it when he was spending the winter of 1898 in Vienna, a very dark time for him. He was just coming out of his grief about his daughter, as well as emerging from bankruptcy — a compelling example of human resilience. He was back — not only back, but the old, wild Mark Twain."
The design team includes scenic design by Tony Award nominee Peter J. Davison, costume design by two-time Tony Award winner Martin Pakledinaz, and lighting design by Tony Award winner Peter Kaczorowski.
Music and sound design are by David Van Tieghem, hair and wigs are designed by Paul Huntley, casting is by Jay Binder/Jack Bowdan, dance sequences are by Pamela Remler, production supervisor is Steven Beckler.
David Ives was born in Chicago and educated at Yale School of Drama. A former Guggenheim Foundation Fellow in playwriting, he is best known for his evening of one-act comedies called All in the Timing. His short plays are collected in two anthologies, All in the Timing (Vintage) and Time Flies (Grove). His full-length theatre works are available in "Polish Joke and Other Plays" (Grove). He is also the author of two young-adult novels, "Monsieur Eek" and "Scrib." Most recently, he translated Georges Feydeau's classic French farce A Flea in Her Ear and Yasmina Reza's A Spanish Play. He has adapted the books of 18 classic musicals for presentation in the City Center Encores! series.
Director Blakemore won Tony Awards for both a play, Copenhagen, and a musical, Kiss Me, Kate, in the same year. Other accolades include three Drama Desk Awards and Tony nominations for Joe Egg, Noises Off, City of Angels, Lettice and Lovage and The Life. He was most recently represented on Broadway with Deuce; and prior to that, the critically acclaimed Democracy, which he first staged for the National Theatre of Great Britain.
Norbert Leo Butz received the 2005 Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics and Drama League Awards for his performance as Freddy Benson in the Broadway musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He co-starred in Wicked on Broadway where he created the role of Fiyero. Other Broadway credits include Thou Shalt Not (Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics nominations, Best Featured Actor in a Musical) and Rent (original cast, Broadway debut).
For more information, visit www.IsHeDead.com.