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Review: 'Is He Dead?' at International City Theatre

May 3, 2009 |  3:17 pm

Dead The throaty guffaw you just heard emanating from the great beyond belongs to Mark Twain, who is no doubt getting a kick out of the posthumous success of his 1898 play "Is He Dead?" -- an exceedingly silly doodle of a comedy that he never saw produced in his lifetime.

Thankfully for us, "Is He Dead?" was recently resurrected from Twain's archives and has received a first-rate polish by playwright David Ives. A production opened on Broadway in 2007 to some critical praise, and now the comedy is receiving its West Coast premiere in a buoyant staging by the International City Theatre in Long Beach.

"Is He Dead?" relies an overly familiar farcical device -- a man in a dress -- but finds ways to mine the premise for maximum laughs. The main character is Jean-François Millet, the real-life 19th century French painter of "The Gleaners" and other masterpieces depicting peasant life. As the play opens, the impoverished Millet (Perry Ojeda) is trying to figure out how to pay off his many debts. His paintings aren't selling and his mood is sinking faster than the Seine at low tide.

On the urging of some friends, Millet agrees to fake his own demise to inflate the value of his art. "The deader he is, the better he is," explains one character. The ruse works magnificently, with Millet posing as his widowed sister, Daisy Tillou (pronounced "to you"), to collect the proceeds.

Twain's comedy moves so fast that many jokes are liable to fly past the audience. Luckily, there seems to be a joke every five seconds. Once Millet puts on an evening gown as Daisy, the play turns into anarchic slapstick, with characters entering and exiting at screwball speed. The joke velocity accelerates. A recurring reference to the odor of Limburger cheese is the play's most inspired, um, gag.

The frenzied gallery of supporting characters is generally excellent -- Millet's ditzy fiancée, Marie (Suzanne Petrela), his best friend, Chicago (Brian Stanton), and his over-eager pupil Phelim (Blake Silver) make the greatest impressions despite limited stage time. Directed by Shashin Desai, ICT's production is a model of clarity and efficiency, without an extraneous flourish or wasted movement. Even the set change during intermission is turned into a nifty dumb show.

At times, it's difficult to discern where Twain's writing ends and Ives' polish begins. The play's mixed authorial provenance makes for a few uncertain tonal moments. But "Is He Dead?" is mostly a riot from beginning to end. In its own modest way, it's an example of an expertly constructed comedy -- grounded in the mechanics of classical storytelling but somehow lighter than air.

"Is He Dead?" International City Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. $32 to $42. (562) 436-4610. Running time: 2 hours.

Photo: Perry Ojeda, left, and Steve Marvel. Credit: Shashin Desai.