What a Farce

Photo: Jonathon Kantor

Against his better judgment, Norbert Leo Butz finally decides to come clean about his lengthy (but not particularly impressive) rap sheet. “I can’t, I can’t! Stop making me sound like a hood,” says the actor who won a Tony for tearing up Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as a sleazy con artist. But with no further prompting, he’s on about his first arrest, at age 15, for driving: “Now, you can’t drive when you’re 15 in Missouri.” Four years later, he was booked in London for staging a street fight outside a pub with a drunken friend. “Bad luck or good acting? I don’t know,” he says. And just two years ago, he was handcuffed on the Jersey Turnpike for driving with an expired license. It was only an hour before a Scoundrels matinee, but he made the curtain.

Butz is surprisingly candid about his youthful indiscretions, and about going into Dirty Rotten Scoundrels three days after his divorce, and about an hour-long, 3 a.m. crying jag the night he won the Tony. Maybe it’s the safety and comfort of his well-appointed Lyceum dressing room, where the actor who goes by “Norb” sprawls on a sofa, readying himself for the lead role in the “new” Mark Twain farce, Is He Dead?, in which he plays a starving artist who fakes his own death to bump up his prices. Or maybe he’s just being impulsive—which also happens to be the way he handles his career.

When Butz first got a look at David Ives’s reworking of the Twain play, he was set to meet with Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman about the lead role of the mad scientist in Young Frankenstein. After playing Freddy Benson in Scoundrels (and relegating John Lithgow to straight-man status), it was the obvious move, professionally and artistically. Butz’s crack timing, his bawdy, maniacal leer, and his newfound dancing skills might have been exactly what Brooks needed to ward off the sniping critics. But Butz had other ideas.

“I never heard a note of the music, never saw a page of the script,” he says. “But I thought, I just followed Steve Martin, I really don’t want to follow Gene Wilder right now. And it was really time for me to do a play.” So, within days of reading for the part, he was committed to playing a death-faking, cross-dressing French painter.

Butz, 40, grew up with ten siblings and owes his uniquely unstageworthy name to his father, a St. Louis insurance salesman with a not-so-secret love of dance. He got his master’s at a University of Alabama Shakespeare program and came to New York to do straight, earnest plays. Then he got an understudy part in Rent and wound up replacing the role of a singing HIV-positive former junkie. Musicals became his stock-in-trade: hefty parts in Wicked, Cabaret, and the ill-fated Harry Connick Jr.–scored Thou Shalt Not (roundly panned—except for his performance). But it was Dirty Rotten Scoundrels that made him famous—as a physical comedian.

Butz is most dumbfounded not by the Tony he won for Scoundrels but by his TDF/Astaire award, given to Broadway’s top dancer of the year. “I called [director] Jack O’Brien, and I said, ‘I have to turn this down.’ He said, ‘Don’t you dare. It would be more selfish to make a big deal out of it.’ ” So Butz graciously accepted but told his benefactors that “what I do is decidedly not dance. I’m just impulsively moving.”

On reflection, he believes his irresistible, almost bestial turn in that musical had a lot to do with being “at sort of the lowest point in my life. I had a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old and I was told six months before that my wife of nine years didn’t want to live with me anymore. When I accepted the part, I had no other desire than to sit in bed and drink vodka and do crossword puzzles.” Scoundrels “was such a lifeboat to me. Not to get all Dr. Phil, but it felt very healing.”

Yet it wasn’t just pure love of the part that led Butz to tour with the show on the West Coast—a rare move for an award-winning star. It was also the chance to be noticed by Hollywood scouts, to see how far his new comic persona could take him. Hell, maybe he’d even land a sitcom. A fellow Tony winner, sloppy-funny Dan Fogler of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, was on this path, too.

What happened next was probably for the best (you may—but probably don’t—remember Fogler as the star of Balls of Fury). “You’re just reading oaf after oaf, dumb guy after dumb guy,” Butz says of the scripts that came his way. He did in fact sign a sitcom deal with CBS, but the pilot he made wasn’t Farrelly brothers fare. “I played a racist Republican quadriplegic,” he says. “Archie Bunker with a neck injury.” Aptly titled Playing Chicken, it was shot the week after the Don Imus scandal and never saw the light of day.

Is He Dead? may be less of a gamble. On the other hand, it is a Victorian gender-bending farce (Twain’s artist, Jean-François Millet, disguises himself as his imaginary sister for most of the play) by a brilliant author who was also a notoriously bad playwright. It was only discovered, among Twain’s papers, in 2002—a brand-new, century-old play.

“I did not want to contemporize it,” says David Ives, who adapted the 1898 script. “What I did want to do was make it move a little more swiftly. Ambling is not the best thing for an audience in 2007.” The result is no drawing-room comedy; it’s Huck Finn meets Molière meets Hairspray, and it demands a quick wit. “I think farce is like doing a musical,” says director Michael Blakemore. “You can either sing the notes and dance the steps or you can’t.”

Butz is just the man for the part. Even with Ives’s updates, there are only so many Limburger-cheese jokes, hoary foreign stereotypes, and spontaneous bursts of jigging that a contemporary audience can take in an evening. And yet, every time Butz is onstage, doing one of his genius set pieces in drag, the years—and the cheese—melt away. Suddenly, you’re watching The Drowsy Chaperone without the in-jokes.

Butz says the best thing Blakemore told him in rehearsals was that “the characters in a farce have to think shallow and fast. And I think those are the two words to really describe me. That’s exactly how I think. The thoughts aren’t deep, but they come in rapid succession.”

Of all the near casualties of the stagehands’ strike, Is He Dead? seemed one of the most precarious, in part because Broadway went dark after the show had had just two nights of previews. When it returned on November 29—originally meant to be its opening night—only 330 people showed up. “We had a rough couple of days when we first got back,” says Butz. “We definitely had forgotten some of the rhythms.” During his enforced vacation, Butz mostly “got stuff done around the house” and did read some more Twain. But the extra research time didn’t help—“not with this piece. It’s something you have to learn by doing it. To overanalyze anything about it is to really kill it.”

Is He Dead?
By Mark Twain. Lyceum Theatre. Open Run.

What a Farce