Funny how these dead writers keep coughing up new plays. Shakespeare's got one, Cardenio, confirmed by British scholars earlier this year as a script the Bard based on Don Quixote. It was produced briefly during Shakespeare's lifetime, then lost, only to be rediscovered recently by literary sleuths who found similar material in a rewrite under another title, Double Falsehood, and traced it back to the old scribbler himself.
And there's Mark Twain's previously unproduced 1898 farce, Is He Dead?, which lay a-moldering in dusty archives at University of California, Berkeley, until 2002, when it was pulled out and published by researcher Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Adapted by playwright David Ives, the play made a better-late-than-never Broadway debut in 2007, surprising critics and audiences with its still-fizzy witticisms, enjoyably bad puns and timeless slapstick.
Now Is He Dead? is at Addison's WaterTower Theatre, where some of the area's most devilish comic pixies are running merrily amok with it. Directed by James Paul Lemons, the large cast plays this comedy with the subtlety of a wrecking ball, which is exactly what's called for.
Set in Paris in the 1840s, Is He Dead?, a spin-off of a Twain short story, finds artist Jean-François Millet (yes, just like the real one) starving in his garret, surrounded by unsold masterpieces. With the landlord pounding at his door for rent, Millet (played by Mark Shum) concocts a desperate scheme. He's been told by a snooty collector (Paul Taylor, in a multitude of silly roles here) that only the work of deceased painters sells for high sums. So Millet and three bachelor friends decide to make the artist diseased, then deceased. Millet is to disappear from Paris, afflicted with a fictional but unspeakable terminal illness (when it's spoken of, they grab their crotches and wince). If his paintings start to appreciate in value, Millet will "die" and return as his own made-up twin sister, Widow Daisy Tillou (pronounced "to-you"), who will oversee his estate.
What they don't foresee in the plan is that Millet, done up in rouge and a pink hoop skirt, will be catnip to a couple of old Parisian toms. One is that oily landlord (played by Randy Pearlman, wearing a Snidely Whiplash mustache and parenthetical spit curls); the other is Monsieur Leroux (R Bruce Elliott), widowed father of Millet's girlfriend, Marie (Jessica Cavanagh). How will the Widow Tillou juggle her suitors while also pursuing Marie, who's so ditzy she doesn't realize that those ever-friendlier smooches from her dead boyfriend's sister are really...oh, swoon, it's all too much for a lady to explain.
It's Tootsie meets Some Like It Hot in the costumes of Charley's Aunt. All resemblance to the latter is probably intentional. Brandon Thomas' old-timey cross-dressing comedy was enjoying its long Broadway run in the 1890s, just about when Twain would have been writing Is He Dead? Maybe Twain saw it and thought he could do better. He almost does.
If only the first act of Is He Dead? didn't drag like a Sunday-night sermon before Millet finally gets into drag. The pace picks up after intermission, with a change of scenery from the dreary garret to an elegant drawing room (spiffy work by designer Clare Floyd DeVries). Then Shum, familiar to fans of Theatre Britain's Christmas panto shows for his performances as the dragfully daft "Widow Twankey," toddles out in the heels and frills of Widow Daisy Tillou. From there it's grins and giggles through one ridiculous mix-up after another.
A tea party scene with Daisy and two older widows (Nancy Sherrard and Jane Willingham) shows off Shum in a triumph of prop-handling and comic timing. Another scene enacts the old joke about pretty women being made of artificial parts; in Widow Daisy's case, a spare leg, a glass eye and some rather gnarly hairpieces. (Period costumes by Aaron Patrick Turner are marvels of lush fabrics and lovely details; the wigs look like afterthoughts.)
WaterTower's actors jolt a lot of life into Is He Dead? Playing Millet's conspirators are a trio of Dallas theater's favorite young clowns: Shane Strawbridge as a voluble Irishman, Ben E. Bryant as a daffy German and Kevin Moore as a knockabout kid from Chicago. They are Twain's three bumbling stooges, getting big laughs with a gag about Limburger cheese, followed by the German's promise that "the wurst is yet to come." Bah-dum-bump.
Twain laughs at himself in the play, too. In a nod to Tom Sawyer, the writer has one character observe: "The idea of a man attending his own funeral...whoever heard of such a thing?"
Mark these words: Is He Dead? is the liveliest comedy on a local stage right now.
Through the 135 minutes of Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the heavy drama about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous that's now running at Theatre Too, a version of the Serenity Prayer ran through my head, oh, about 135 times: Grant us the grace to accept the things we cannot change—like this terrible show—courage to change the things that should be changed—like coming ever again to Theatre Too—and the wisdom to know the difference—between good acting and bad.
Written by a couple of shrinks, this play is a 100-proof disaster. An unpalatable hybrid of church pageant and medieval melodrama, the script has characters angrily yelling bits of exposition. Stuff that sounds like "You've been drunk since 1929, when the stock market fell! And that was six years ago! And now it's 1935 and you were drunk on the day my mother died! In Akron! Home of the Goodyear tire company!"
The acting in director Kerry Cole's production is hard to watch without being embarrassed for the cast. Why were leads Greg Forshay (playing Depression-era stockbroker Bill Wilson) and Jerry Crow (as surgeon Bob Smith) allowed to create such unconvincing drunks? In the close quarters of this 80-seat basement space, they flail around with huge, awkward gestures, over-slurring and stumbling like Ray Milland in Lost Weekend.
As Bill's wife Lois, Hilary Couch stands ramrod straight, blasting her lines like a foghorn even when she's alone onstage reading aloud as her character writes a journal entry (a dramatic device that tells you the playwrights are hacks). Playing Bob's long-suffering wife Anne is Stephanie Dunnam, who 30 years ago was the "It Girl" of Dallas theaters. In this thing she has little to do but stare at an embroidery hoop or flip the pages of a Bible. At least she's not yelling.
Elizabeth Rueff and Andrew Dillon appear in several roles each, a confusing crossover of comic relief and deadly serious characters. As a hospitalized drinker whom Bill and Bob try to persuade toward their belief in alcoholism as "allergy," Dillon provides the only semi-real moment of the evening as he quietly declines the men's offer of help.
Aiming for a somber message of hope for the recovered, the recovering and those who haven't yet had the courage to go to their first AA meeting, Bill W. and Dr. Bob comes off as a preachy, moralistic trudge. Chase that with bad performances for two most unhappy hours.