DAVID HYDE PIERCE AND JOANNA LUMLEY CO-STAR IN THE REVIVAL OF DAVID HIRSON’S COMEDY AT THE MUSIC BOX THEATRE
by HENRY EDWARDS
“La Bête” (which means "beast" and "fool" in French) is not your typical play—unless you think it’s not unusual to write a play in rhyming couplets in the style of Molière. If that doesn't sound strange enough, “La Bête” bombed on Broadway when it was originally produced in 1991 and then went on to win Britain's Olivier Award for Best New Comedy a year later.
And now it's back in a glittering new edition fresh from London directed by Matthew Warchus (“Boeing-Boeing,” “The Norman Conquests,” “God of Carnage”) with a cast headed by 2008 Best Actor Tony award winner Mark Rylance.
Set (where else?) in Molière territory—17th-century France in the province of Languedoc—“La Bête” pits Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), the high-minded playwright and head of the royal theatre troupe (his name just happens to be an anagram for Molière) against the incredibly crude, lowbrow street entertainer and playwright Valere (Rylance).
From Elomire’s point of view, Valere is the embodiment of the vulgarity that sends culture sailing into the abyss. But that hasn’t stopped Valere’s antics from capturing the imagination of Elomire’s patron, the all-powerful, highly strung Princess Conti (“Ab Fab” goddess Joanna Lumley in her Broadway debut).
Yet again popular culture and high culture are destined to duke it out when Princess C. orders Elomire's troupe to perform one of Valere's extremely awful, extremely popular plays.
If “La Bête” has a point to make, it's probably meant to say the public and even its tastemakers are ineluctably drawn to the very worst; thus and thigh art or at least the pretension to high art doesn’t stand a chance.
Needless to say, the world weary theme of popular culture versus high art is far from fresh. (Of all things, it used to turn up repeatedly in Hollywood movie musicals, including the first talkie “The Jazz Singer,” in which jazz did battle with traditional religious music.) What does sparkle is Mark Rylance’s extraordinary characterization of Valere.
Dressed in a shamble of ill-fitting, mismatched, filth-stained clothes, the actor is the ultimate sight gag come to life. Rylance snorts, spits out food through Jerry Lewis style buck teeth, belches, breaks wind, sniggers and avails himself of an on-stage lavatory, daintily ripping pages from rare books to use as toilet paper.
Undoubtedly a victim of advanced logorrhea, he talks…and talks…and talks—about himself, creating a verbal sandstorm of rampant egomania peppered with his own self-invented, loony-bird language.
Valere’s monologue, an astonishing 40 minutes in length, cries out for a virtuoso performer, and Rylance is the perfect fit, inspiring Andrew Billen of Britain's New Statesman to say the actor “has shown himself to be, by some distance, our best stage actor. He is to Simon Russell Beale what Ian McKellen was to Antony Sher in the 1980s, and Olivier to Gielgud and Richardson in the 1960s.”
Unfortunately, after Rylance’s stunning opening tour de force, "La Bête” begins to unwind, and by the time excerpts from Valere’s plays take center stage, nothing seems all that interesting or funny.
Seemingly aware of the insufficiency of the dramaturgy, director Warchus has instructed his brilliant set and costume designer Mark Thompson to allow his imagination to run riot, and the resulting designs are gloriously elaborate.
Faced with Rylance’s torrential performance, David Hyde Pierce, cast as what is essentially the evening’s straight man, nevertheless, speaks wonderfully, looks terrific in period costume and wig and goes out of his way to project tons of understandable frustration.
Warchus has staged a breathtaking entrance for Joanna Lumley who sails onto the stage preceded by a huge spray of sparkling gold confetti. Even though the actress doesn’t have all that much to do, it’s a joy to have her on a Broadway stage.
Lumley also gives great interviews, telling a journalist, '''La Bête' is an American play written by an American for American people. It speaks more to Americans here than it does to us - the vapidity of being ruled by fools who are empty and people talking to fill up space."
The production is dazzling, and Mark Rylance is astonishing. And yet after the initial impact, "La Bête” tries desperately but never finds a way to top itself.