Spoiler Alert! The protagonist isn't, the author is, and by the end of it, you may wish you were. Written in 1898 by comic genius Mark Twain, adapted rather more recently by playwright David Ives, and directed in its Broadway premiere by Michael Blakemore, this formulaic farce gets a spectacular star treatment-but never lives up to its fabulous pedigree. The real question is why all this talent should be wasted on such a trifle?
The plot reads like a series of rejected comedy revue sketches. It's 1846: A brilliant but impoverished French painter (Norbert Leo Butz) can't raise the funds to rescue his beloved's father (John McMartin) from an artist-exploiting moneylender (the smarmily villainous Byron Jennings). He and his friends-a motley bunch of good-natured national stereotypes-hatch a plot to fake his death in order to up the value of his work. Meantime, the artist disguises himself as his imaginary but voluptuous twin sister, and all kinds of tedious hijinks ensue.
Tight direction lends the play more shape and more style than it deserves, and the energetic cast of pros gives its all to the less-than-scintillating script. Butz plays for farce, grimacing wildly, mugging archly, and kicking against his voluminous skirts. Michael McGrath, as his enterprising American buddy Chicago, the dolorous German Dutchie (Tom Alan Robbins), and a whimsical Irishman (Jeremy Bobb) do their best to transcend their hackneyed roles by sheer force of will. But even with the best cast money can buy, and even allowing for the play's age, Is He Dead? never rises above its hackneyed premise, although glimmers of plot devices from Twain's other, better, works occasionally enliven the watching experience-like the conceit of viewing your own funeral. Maybe it's fortunate Twain didn't live to see this one.