By MCN Editor

Is He Dead?

It’s ironic that the two most entertaining new shows on Broadway this year so far are a musical based on a failed movie from 1980 and a straight comedy written in 1898. Both Xanadu and Is He Dead? are original productions. And both are layered with a sense of irony, kitsch, and simply, undeniable theatrical pleasure.
Is He Dead? is one of those shows that is loaded with an unexpected parade of emerging Broadway stars. It is a particular surprise that there are so many musical theater stars in this non-musical farce. The show is led by Norbert Leo Butz, who was last seen on Broadway winning the Tony for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. In support are the legendary John McMartin, Spamalot’s Michael McGrath, Tarzan’s Jenn Gambatese, The Lion King/Sunset Blvd’s Tom Alan Robbins, and the amazing David Pittu, who was the very best thing to be found in the short run of LoveMusik.
Also in this formidable cast from the non-musical world are Byron Jennings, Patricia Connolly, the great Marylouise Burke (Miles’ mom from Sideways), Jeremy Bobb, and the Broadway-debuting Bridget Regan.
Michael Blakemore, the director who became hot on Broadway for his production of the backstage farce Noises Off, directs the farce that was written by Mark Twain and intended for production in 1898, in the spirit of real old-school theater. The stage is mic’ed, but not the actors. The stage is simple and brightly lit, relying on the actors to move the proceedings along. And that script!
Maybe, if this was a script of this era, one might wonder why it lingers in classic modes of farce. But walking in without thinking too much about what we were about to see, the show jumps in, feet first, and never really lets you go.
Butz is, at least at first, the straight man to a trio of men of different nations; American, Dutch, and Irish. The show is so light-hearted about it, the modern notion of “oh no, three ethnic groups with the stereotypes,” is just not a factor. Butz’ Jean-Francois Millet is based on the real French artist… and France is where the show is set. But the great stereotypical Frenchman of the show is the arch-villain, Bastien Andre, played wonderfully by Byron Jennings. He is the evil landlord… and they can’t pay the rent… but they gotta pay the rent.
Millet, a starving artist amongst starving artists, is doing amazing work, but it is not cheerful enough. They realize how artists like him are better appreciate after they die. And so, a plot is hatched… he will die in public… and not only will they pay the rent, but hope to get rich.
Of course, this is a big ol’ farce and there has to be at least one big twist to the proceedings… and it is the twisting of Millet, who can’t stand being in hiding. How will he be out in public without being caught not being dead?
And away we go…
The secret to Is He Dead?’s success is great performances – almost every actor gets at least one showstopping moment – tight, tight direction, and a simple, obvious, delightful play. Every time you decide one character is “the best one,” another one comes along with a great bit. You have the two gorgeous sisters, looking for happy, aesthetic marriages… and the two apparent spinster sisters. You have the trip of sidekicks, right out of Twain and reflected in the films of Preston Sturges… they are scoundrels, but righteous, but selfish, but charming as hell. You have the good older man and the evil older man, both considering younger women. And of course, you have the very talented struggling artist, hoping as we do with him, to overcome the fate of so many legendary artists… hoping to enjoy his success while still alive. (You also have David Pittu in five roles, killing each of them, a real character acting star waiting for his Shaloub moment.)
I couldn’t have had more fun… well, at least not without roller skates. I have no idea how the show will be reviewed. (One major critic grimaced his way through the matinee… likely the only person in the intimate Lyceum Theater.) But audiences will be hungry for this great couple hours of old school, big laugh, sweet spirited theater. It will not be the best new play of this year. (Rock-n-Roll is in the lead there.) But this show has the spirit that made Noises Off and Avenue Q such successes. Simple, smart fun. Go.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon