You know you want to laugh. Yet you sit there, observing the latest demonstration of old-time twaddle that's stuffed end to end in Is He Dead? -- adapted by David Ives from Mark Twain's unproduced 1898 play -- stifling that chuckle, squelching that guffaw, gut-punching that belly laugh. Insistently insipid as Is He Dead? is, the actors are all so game that director Michael Blakemore's production winds up far funnier than the material deserves. Still, you must let it out. You giggle. You chortle. You absentmindedly slap your armrest, praying no one saw you.
Ives' absurdist hand can be felt from the moment the not-yet-famous artist Jean-François Millet (Norbert Leo Butz) arrives at his garret, having sold not one painting this 1846 spring day. He has a few factotums -- artist Agamemnon Buckner, called Chicago (Michael McGrath); pupil Hans von Bismarck, called Dutchy (Tom Alan Robbins); and Phelim O'Shaughnessy (Jeremy Bobb) -- to commiserate with, plus a sweetheart, Marie Leroux (Jenn Gambatese). But Millet's life is picture imperfect: Millet owes a large sum to Bastien André (Byron Jennings), an art dealer and usurer, as does Marie's father, Papa Leroux (John McMartin). This messes matters up for Chicago, with his amorous feelings for Marie's sister Cecile (Bridget Regan); it worries Millet's dotty landladies, Mesdames Bathilde (Patricia Conolly) and Caron (Marylouise Burke), who are blasé about Millet's back rent. Looking evil as sin in Martin Pakledinaz's satirical black costume, André proposes a solution to Papa: Marry Marie to him, and he'll cancel all debts. Or else.
Soon merchant Basil Thorpe (David Pittu) visits. He's transported by Millet's now-famous painting "The Angelus" and tempted to buy it. What a shame Millet's not dead: "I couldn't possibly buy any work from a painter who hadn't passed on. A problem of value," Thorpe says. Yes, that's it! The crew will devise a scheme for Millet to fall ill, die, and for Millet's sister -- Daisy Tillou ("tee-you") -- to materialize. Butz in a dress! Well, just Millet's luck: André is simply captivated by Daisy. And why not? The paintings are selling like hotcakes!
In Act 2, Peter J. Davison's stunning set is transformed into four-door surroundings indicative of Millet's fortune -- but Butz is still in that dress. The tension between wanting to suppress laughter and needing to release it reaches a fever pitch. The actors know it and go for it.
Of the many cuts and bruises presumably applied to Twain's play, Ives' key move is giving Chicago a ton of anachronistic Chicago-style vernacular, which McGrath delivers with gusto. Jennings, his face in a long frown, uses his best modulated voice to seem snider than Snidely Whiplash. Conolly and Burke, whose lines often echo each other, know what such silliness is all about. Robbins is heartier than a good lager, McMartin as charming as ever. And when will a producer star Pittu in a play? With customary brilliance, he essays a Le Figaro reporter, a Louis XIV-style flunky, and the royally sour-faced King of France.
Audiences love Butz; he radiates honesty, and few actors are anywhere near as comically versatile. Butz in drag is like Milton Berle in drag; you want him to ask, "Is it too busy?" But stylistically, Butz is in another play, and I'm not sure he knows which one even as Daisy romps about with glee.
Some things work against Butz -- and the play as a whole. Ives should cut all the asides, and Blakemore should cut the faux musical numbers that turn the boisterous Bobb into a bobbing boob. Is He Dead? is too alive with hokum to kill us with such comedy.
Presented by Bob Boyett, Roger Berlind, Daryl Roth, Jane Bergère, E. Morten/P. Robbins, J. O'Boyle-R. Stevens, Roy Miller, Sonia Friedman Productions/Ambassador Theatre Group, Tim Levy, in association with Shelley Fisher Fishkin at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., NYC. Opened Dec. 9 for an open run. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 or www.telecharge.com. Casting by Jay Binder/Jack Bowdan.