NEW YORK -

Is He Dead?

is as much a play as a historical curiosity. It's a new comedy by Mark Twain, which opened last night on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre, where Twain himself saw a play 99 years ago.

The great American humorist wrote the script in 1898, and it was never produced or published in his lifetime. (He died in 1910.) The Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin found it in 2002 while perusing his papers at the University of California at Berkeley. She's among its Broadway producers.

The farcical melodrama is Twain's take on the intersection of art and money, long before the first Asian collectors or Jasper Johns came along, followed through the years by a stream of high-figure checks. Is He Dead? plays as a spirited, unabashed melodrama - Snidely Whiplash to the max - and after intermission, becomes rollickingly funny.

According to Merle Johnson's authoritative bibliography, the author - under his given name, Samuel Clemens, or as Mark Twain - was not just a prolific novelist, world-traveling speechifier and essayist, he sometimes dabbled in playwriting.

His first produced play was Colonel Sellers, an 1874 New York hit Twain adapted from The Gilded Age, a novel he cowrote with journalist Charles Dudley Warner. Twain's other produced play, until now, was Ah Sin, The Heathen Chinee, a comedy that did no favors to immigrating Chinese folks. It was heavily edited down by its producer - who should have cut all of it, Twain joked on opening night, before it flopped.

He teamed with writer Bret Hart for that play, and he also has a collaborator in Is He Dead? - the smart, witty David Ives, whose most popular work is a set of innovative one-acts called All in the Timing. Ives is called the adaptor of Is He Dead?, which means he smoothed out the script.

It's about a starving French artist and his equally distressed friends. They fake the artist's death to drive up the value of his paintings. The artist - a wonderfully fluid performance by Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) - dresses as his own grieving sister to make things all the more believable. Or unbelievable.

Oddly, Twain chose a real artist to mock - Jean-François Millet, known best for his scenes with peasants; two of Millet's works hang at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Not a word of the outrageous plot is true, or meant to be; it's all a stylish goof, only mildly amusing in the first act, and a little draggy. But Act 2 is highly draggy in another sense - a full-fledged drag romp, and hilarious.

Butz pulls out all the stops. He's supported by a sizable cast that has the timing down - and in Act 2, by a fabulous drawing room by Peter J. Davison that lets Butz move around with great command. The costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are period knockouts.

Much of the credit goes to veteran director Martin Blakemore, who has thought of every trick melodrama employs, then figured out how to make fun of the tricks as well as the genre, always using the script as his guide.

Is He Dead? is, ultimately, a triumph of staging, not writing. Blakemore should be pleased - he would have made Mark Twain laugh out loud, along with the rest of us.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.