Nobody would call Twain's long-unproduced 1898 play a masterpiece, even with David Ives's streamlining: It recapitulates familiar motifs and even more wheezily familiar jokes. But it infuses them with Twain's gently mocking spirit, which Ives's emendations never besmirch. Blakemore has successfully awakened that spirit; Butz and the jovial crew surrounding him embody it. No grandiose claimsjust good humor, good energy, and a sweet underpinning of rue.
That's the bright secret of Is He Dead? in a nutshell.
photo: Joan Marcus
A kick in his own pants: Hoon Lee and Noah Bean in David Henry Hwang's
By David Henry Hwang
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Is He Dead?
By Mark Twain, adapted by David Ives
149 West 45th Street
Doris to Darlene: a cautionary valentine
By Jordan Harrison
416 West 42nd Street
You could view the history of the American comic spirit's attenuation in a nutshell by going straight from Is He Dead? to Doris to Darlene. Young Jordan Harrison's tiny trifle assembles three interlocking anecdotes of romantic disaster set in three different eras, also sweetly underpinned with rue. But Harrison scarcely bothers to tell his stories, dressing them in cursory, often doubtful details that leave you feeling shortchanged. The empty cleverness of their crisscross seems his main interest. No wonder Les Waters's production, with its jokey gender-blind casting, feels oddly centerless as the fragmented scenes whizz on- and offstage on the tracks and turntables of Takeshi Kata's sleekly barren set. Harrison does have two strong assets: The lesser is his gentle but distinctive comic sense, which keeps you smiling while you wait for the play he hasn't written; the purest gold in his vault, however, comes from a trio of delicately realized, powerfully rooted performances by Laura Heisler, Tom Nelis, and especially de'Adre Aziza, whose smile has a sweeter savor than any candy you'll taste this Christmas.