In 1898, Mark Twain wrote a farce called Is He Dead? that was set to open in London. Thanks to a fire in theatrical warehouse, second thoughts from Twain's London agent Bram (Dracula) Stoker and a lukewarm reaction from the producer, the production was cancelled and Twain shoved the play into a drawer where it was soon forgotten.
In 2001, a Twain scholar found the manuscript. And in 2007, via a long chain of events, Is He Dead? opened on Broadway in an adaptation by playwright David Ives.
The show is now receiving its regional premiere at Little Lake Theatre.
Here's what you're in for: A starving French artist, in order to raise the value of his paintings, pretends to be dying and — for reasons perhaps not altogether clear — dresses up as his (invented) twin sister. There's young sweet love, old dirty love, comic villains and outsized supporting characters.
Your typical farce — maybe even prototypical. It would be interesting to know how much Ives added and what Twain supplied, because it feels like every modern guy-in-a-dress-mistaken-identity farce I've ever seen. So either Ives has turned the original into a G.I.D.M.I. classic ... or Twain invented the paradigm.
I'm maybe not the biggest fan of G.I.D.M.I. farces, but this is a very slick, seamless gag-studded script building slowly to the hoot-'n'-holler finish — and the Little Lake audience was doing both with enthusiasm.
Director Art DeConciliis could probably direct this sort of play blindfolded: He knows exactly how to play out the line and when to move in for the kill. Only a curious bit of hesitancy on the part of the cast keeps it from hitting the lunatic-farce jackpot.
Nathan Bell heads an impossibly large cast (of 11!) with an ingratiating charm as the artist/sister. Troy Bruchwalski, Jeff Johnston and TJ Firneno are shameless as his co-conspirators, and Jenny Malarkey is appealing and unaffected as the love interest. Stephen Joel Crawford has fun playing multiple walk-on parts and Carol Lauck deserves mention for a impressive array of period-defining costumes.
Reports of Mark Twain's death might, at this point, not be exaggerated. But his "new" play is very much alive.