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Mark Twain in Person, American Theater Company. After performing this labor of love for 35 years, Richard Henzel is somewhat closer to Mark Twain’s supposed age at the time of this lecture–71–making the novelist’s addlepated humor and genial dodder seem even more authentic. But then everything rings true in this delightful depiction, directed by James Thornton, of America’s most irascible satirist: Twain’s fury at slavery, imperialism, organized greed, and the predations of war is just as germane in 2002 as it was in his own time.

With his wild mane of bright hair and ice cream suit, Henzel’s Twain is a white knight in happy combat with human folly. In spellbinding language he ecstatically describes the many moments contained in a sunrise over the Mississippi River, and with the stricken sensibilities of a recent widower, recalls the off-and-on courtship of his beloved Livy. He even makes us see the Union soldier he might have killed, an experience that spoiled any illusions he had about the glory of battle.

Henzel also hits pay dirt with Tom Sawyer’s hilarious con artistry, as the boy mogul hornswoggles half the boys in Hannibal into a very profitable (for him) whitewashing. The tour de force, however, is Twain’s elaborate description of how he literally killed his conscience, triggering a carnival of crime in Connecticut. Henzel’s closing to this “serio humorous lecture”–blowing cigar smoke through soap bubbles–is the perfect fusion of beauty and cantankerousness.