On Sunday, December 9 I had the great fortune of attending the opening of IS HE DEAD? at the generous invitation of Shelley Fisher Fishkin, who plucked the play out of the files of the Mark Twain Papers and steered it into our hands for publication and then into the hands of producer Bob Boyett for eventual production on Broadway.
I was part of an entourage that included many of those involved a the early stages with both the book publication and the play, including Shelley’s agent, Sam Stoloff, the head of the Mark Twain Foundation, Rick Watson, and members of Shelley’s family. We were sorry that Robert Hirst, General Director of The Mark Twain Papers wasn’t there to join us. The Broadway strike, which pushed the opening date from November 29 to December 9 required last-minute rescheduling that didn’t work for everyone who was coming from the West Coast.
Our afternoon began with brunch and tour at the Players Club in Gramercy Park. Paintings and photographs of famous members of the club decorate the walls floor to ceiling (including one room of paintings by John Singer Sargent). In the card rooms and billiard rooms, I could easily imagine Samuel Clemens enjoying gentlemen’s games and a cigar with the club founder, the brilliant stage actor and brother of John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth.
Then it was on to the theater, where Shelley introduced me to the publicity staff, which has been a terrific collaborator over the next few months, supplying us with posters, bookmarks, and tickets to give away at some of our conferences. I was very happy to see that they were selling a number of copies of our book in the lobby.
In fact, I couldn’t wait to re-read several of the funniest scenes. We’ve posted a link to two of these on our website.. As many reviewers have noted, David Ives cut back most of Act I, as Mark Twain doesn’t really catch his stride until Act II and III. However, from the moment the curtain opens on Act II, Mark Twain’s scenes just burst onto the stage as pure fun.
I happened to be sitting next to the proud sister and mother of Bridget Regan, who made her Broadway debut in this play as Cecile Leroux. Her faux-french pronunciation of the word “fraud” in the second act was delicious farce.
Our evening ended at Tavern on the Green, where Shelley introduced me to many of the hard-working actors who brought the play to energetic life onto the stage. It’s a physical production-evident in Norber Leo Butz’s swishing skirts, in David Pittu’s expressive eyebrows, and in the evil grace of Byron Jennings. They were all rather nervous about the reviews; turns out, they had little to worry about. Here’s hoping for a long run!