Early in David Hirson's "La Bête," the pristine white set, an oddly angled room of a 17th-century French palace, is, like a clear radar screen, invaded by a blob.
The blob wears a wig that, in silhouette, might be 17th-century, but its disheveled look would not have been in vogue. The face and body beneath the wig are pudgy. The body is bedecked in loose-fitting, dark leopardskin breeches, a greenish shirt and a broad, crinkly cravat.
Though, like everyone else, the blob, a self-centered actor, speaks in verse, his accent is entirely lowbrow contemporary. He blathers on for about 15 minutes. Part of his monologue is about literature, part about his early years. Most of it is about the cleverness of Hirson's rhyme schemes.
At the end of the tirade there is a blackout, when the audience applauds as they might for one of the great speeches in "Cyrano de Bergerac."
The applause and the monologue - not to mention the play itself - all derive from the same thing, a nostalgia for the theater - more precisely, the theatrical; a longing for theatrical conventions that existed for several centuries, but have been out of fashion for the last 30 years.
"La Bête" is about a troupe of actors in the service of a prince who has become infatuated with the blob (who is, despite his pretensions, a buffoon). The troupe is forced to choose between compromising their standards by working with him, or leaving the prince's employ and upholding their art. You will not be surprised to discover what all but their leader do. Their decision is not hard to predict, given what affected fools they are themselves.
Occasionally Hirson has his characters speak wisely: "Language is, by fools, emasculated/Because their deeds and words are unrelated...When honest word is stripped of sense/Its form assumes unnatural consequence." But most of the time Hirson himself is guilty of facile cleverness for its own sake.
Though Hirson's verse is often accomplished and skillful, the play is essentially collegiate, an extended joke about esthetics. It is not witty enough to sustain two hours. Moreover Richard Jones' directions strains Hirson's modest humor by having all but one of the actors perform in a fatiguingly foppish manner.
I fear it is this very affectedness that the audience embraces as "theatrical." They are so starved for the grand manner that they eargerly applaud the fake, like those who mistake Andrew Lloyd Webber's shows for opera - or, even worse, musical theater.
I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Tom McGowan's performance as the blob. He certainly has the requisite vulgarity and boundless energy, but that is not enough to transcend the tiresomeness of the character.
Dylan Baker gives the effete Prince surprising credibility. Michael Cumpsty plays the troupe leader, the one human being onstage, with impressive authority.
The play has been lavishly, grandiosely (albeit meaninglessly) designed. If you saw it simply done by a college group, its virtues might be more apparent.
Everything that is old is new again, they used to sing. With David Hirson's new comedy of manners about the travails of a 17th-century French playwright, his princely-supported theatrical company, and the blowhard clown who wishes to usurp him, we have a neat case of reverse chic. For here everything that is new is old again.
"La Bete" ("The Beast"), which opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, is a pre-aged, un-used, ready for the living room, contemporary antique.
There are a lot of laughs - not a barrel-load but a lot - in this extravagant modern antiquity. There is also a lot of style - Richard Jones' self-consciously virtuoso staging drips with the stuff as if it were going out of fashion - but the style is a smidgen odd.
Truth to tell, the oddity is partly occasioned by the fact that - to quote the always quotable Cole Porter - "this is not the real turtle soup, merely the mock." It is something like a translation that master of modern Moliere, Richard Wilbur, never made for a play that Moliere himself omitted to write. It is, in a word, pastiche.
Time-traveling in the arts is a hell of a tricky business. To try to work outside one's own period, particularly without parody, is almost never serious and usually disastrous - unless one can make a certain comment, strike a particular attitude.
In music Stravinsky sometimes did this admirably, and Prokofiev also achieved something of the same, very differently, in his Classical Symphony - but in drama the odds are tougher. To imitate Moliere - which is what Hirson is attempting - is not so much foolhardy as crazy, so even his limited success is all the more commendable, while still perhaps, in proper turtle soup terms, deplorable.
Hirson's hero is named Elomire, an anagram of Moliere, just in case we are in any doubt about the ground upon which we are meant to stand - and the play itself bears a family familiarity with Moliere's own "The Misanthrope," with Moliere playing the unbendingly moral Alceste, but the play's leading role here going, in Hirson's practical exegesis, to Alceste's fatuous rival, the poet Oronte.
But Hirson's play is also, to some extent, based on fact. His characters, including the Bejarts, are mostly taken from life. Moliere's company did indeed find a first patron in the Prince of Conti, and for a time toured the Prince's domains in Languedoc and gave performances at his private theater at La Grange near Pezenas, where "La Bete" is set.
The resemblance ends there, for the Prince actually dismissed Moliere, and his troupe, following his conversion to the strict religious cult of Jansenism, and the egomaniacal, epicene and supremely untalented poet Valere (La Bete of the title) was nowhere in evidence.
One of the problems Hirson has set himself in this exercise of style is making his protagonist, the vainglorious Valere, a crushing bore on stage who does not, however, crushingly bore the audience. And in the first act he enjoys a remarkable degree of success.
Vastly helped by Tom McGowan's blustering gusto (he, incidentally, is the dream-sent understudy who took over from the official star, Ron Silver, during the play's tryout in Boston, and his performance is golden), this Valere dominates the first act with a nonstop tirade of quite elegant nonsense.
Tricked out in modern-dress rhyming couplets (racily like those used by Wilbur in his Moliere resuscitations) Valere emerges like a mad geyser - egocentric, foolish, but - and this is Hirson's adroit trick to stop him from appearing both tedious and loathsome - not unlikable in his brash self-confidence.
And Hirson's way with a couplet - such as "You see how absent-minded I can get./ When did I have amnesia? I forget" - is smart and amusing and up to the end of the first act the play seems improbable but not impossible.
The second act - where Hirson seems to want to draw contemporary parallels about public morality and private subsidy, and our own cult of mediocrity - falls as flat as Holland on a rainy month. And this despite all the frantic efforts of the director Jones, his marvelous designer-accomplice, Richard Hudson, and all the actors to make the damn thing fly.
The British duo of Jones and Hudson - making their American debut - are virtually the raison d'etre (as the playwright might say) of the whole production. They dazzle. I first saw their work at London's Old Vic in Ostrovsky's "Too Clever by Half" and they almost are.
Jones makes a camp fire out of effeminate affectation and warms the play with it, while Hudson's frantically distorted perspectives, with brilliant cream walls narrowed to an arrowhead and surmounted with a frieze of Roman busts, like his grotesque costumes and wigs, are a show in themselves.
And, as ever, Jones gets beautifully stylized performances from his cast - not merely from the more fantasticated denizens of the play, the mountebank Valere, the monosyllabic Dorine (Johann Carlo) and, in a masterly caricature of aristocratic ennui, Dylan Baker as the Prince - but also from the counterpointed straight characters of Elomire/Moliere (a valiant Michael Cumpsty) and his adviser, Bejart (James Greene).
Is "La Bete" worth seeing? Yes, for the fantasticated staging - which all but makes a silk purse out of an ear of corn - for the exultant bravado of the acting, and yes, for Hirson's quite clever and very appealing first act. But beware - this is much ado about very little.
"La Bete," the new play by David Hirson at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, begins with a bang that can make even a jaded New York audience abruptly spring to attention. The lights come up on a chorus of babbling 17th-century French swells who are figuratively guillotined by a progression of elegant, falling front curtains, each more disfigured than the last by blotted, calligraphic graffiti. Not long after that, the same curtains rise on a new shock for the eye: a towering period anteroom in nearly unrelieved white, as seen from a skewed, fisheye-lens perspective. And then comes the piece de resistance: A corpulent buffoon -- the beast of the title, known as Valere and played by Tom McGowan -- delivers a marathon soliloquy that runs some 400 lines and, like the entire play, has been composed in rhymed verse!
No, one won't soon forget the first half-hour or so of "La Bete," which takes the brave chances so rare in new American plays. The flip side of such daring, however, is the high expectations it raises. Mr. Hirson promises nothing less than a mock-Moliere comedy of manners and ideas as refracted through (or deconstructed by) a post-modern sensibility. His theme is equally expansive: the decline and fall of culture in a West where "mediocrity is bound to thrive/while excellence must struggle to survive." Yet the follow-through is almost nonexistent. By the time "La Bete" dwindles down to a coda as embarrassingly mawkish as its prologue was startling, one is still waiting for the promised laughter, ideas and dramatic conflict to possess center stage.
The evening's premise certainly is capable of shouldering high ambitions. Mr. Hirson has amusingly imagined that Elomire (Michael Cumpsty), an austere theatrical genius whose name is an anagram of Moliere , is forced by his royal patron, Prince Conti (Dylan Baker), to add Valere, a common street clown, to his company of actors. Valere is the bull in the china shop of art: a vulgar, self-infatuated, facilely talented self-promoter who will pander to any audience, whether a prince or the masses, to win applause. Elomire is his sworn enemy: an esthete holding out for the highest standards in a civilization where the lowest common denominator is increasingly prized.
Of course the world of "La Bete" is a double for our own. The Prince who tries to affect a shotgun artistic marriage between the disparate Valere and Elomire might as well be a cynical Broadway producer attempting to shoehorn this year's Hollywood sensation into a revival of "Peer Gynt." Fair enough, but do we need to go to the theater to be instructed that the heathens are at the gates of high culture? After laying out his unexceptional moral, Mr. Hirson misses opportunity after opportunity to make something entertaining or challenging out of it. "La Bete" has no dramatic surprises, and the author never offers any intellectual corollaries or counter-arguments to his initial, unassailable ideological position. The play instead runs in place, repeating itself over and over, louder and louder each time.
Valere's big soliloquy in Act I, for instance, merely illustrates with countless, interchangeable examples what a self-congratulatory fraud the clown is. Much of the rest of that act and the beginning of the second is devoted to regurgitating Elomire's well-worn objections to the proposed partnership, with the end of Act II trailing off into another lengthy monologue in which Elomire reiterates the playwright's message several more times. The one actual theatrical event in "La Bete" -- the Act II play-within-the-play in which Valere parades his emptiness -- is a fizzle both as a satirical example of the beast's fake art and as a farcical collision between the two antagonists. For that matter, Mr. Hirson never provides a fiery, Peter Shaffer-esque duel of words between the genius Elomire and the mediocrity Valere; this is a play in which everyone talks at rather than to one another.
The dramatic inertia, often accentuated by the declamatory staging provided by the English opera director Richard Jones, might not matter so much if the couplets and star performance were consistently funny. Though Mr. Hirson's sustained versifying is impressive as a technical achievement and though his rhymes can be cute ("caterwaul" with "warts and all"), he never comes remotely near the standard of wit for simulated French couplets in English set by Richard Wilbur in his Moliere translations and in his lyrics for the Leonard Bernstein "Candide." Mr. Hirson provokes smiles when he needs howls.
So it goes as well with Mr. McGowan, a burly young actor who was a good incidental clown in the James Lapine "Winter's Tale" at the Public Theater two seasons ago. The steep demands of "La Bete," which require that Valere make vulgarity both funny and chillingly evil, exceed his skills. While Mr. McGowan flounces through his lengthy Act I monologue with every syllable and low-comic gesture professionally intact, he offers the letter of burlesque clowning without the instinctual spirit that might make such antics hilarious and unsettling. The dangerous comic bravura of a Zero Mostel, Charles Ludlam, John Belushi -- or, to descend to mere mortals, a Tim Curry or John Candy -- is desperately needed to create a tour de force out of a role too laboriously written to soar on an industrious actor's energy alone.
Revealingly Mr. McGowan reaches his one outrageous peak not when he is speaking Mr. Hirson's lines but when he defaces the set with a marker, one of several striking visual gags in a production that has been brilliantly designed by Richard Hudson (sets and costumes) and Jennifer Tipton (lighting). In a supporting cast that includes underused talents (James Greene) and overstretched ones (Johann Carlo), the outstanding comic turn comes from Mr. Baker, who is almost unrecognizable under the wig, lengthy train and pancake makeup of the campy, Cyril Ritchard-like Prince. ("I'm hardly king," he says, sounding every bit like a man who would be queen.) Mr. Cumpsty's impassioned Elomire is also very fine, given the limits of a bombastic role that is less a character than a one-note authorial stand-in.
That note is grating. Elomire eventually sounds less like Moliere, or one of that playwright's Puritanically rigid comic targets, than like a neo-conservative scold. In his final, crowd-pleasing tirade, he rages at a culture that values form over content, highfalutin words over ideas, pretension over truth, and he attacks charlatans like Valere for appropriating the vocabulary of real art to justify their transgressions. But isn't "La Bete" pandering just as much as its villain? There is not a single idea or debate in this play aside from its cost-free endorsement of excellence over trash, and even that one conviction is conveyed not through theatrical excellence but by a sermon that implicitly flatters the audience for its own elevated taste and for its cultural superiority to the riff-raff presumably watching those Broadway shows written in lowly prose.
Thus does an exceptionally promising work intended to shake up a complacent audience deteriorate into an almost insufferably smug example of the exact middlebrow fluff it wants to attack. Offering verse without poetry and the gilded rhetoric of culture as if it were the content, "La Bete" is not so much a play on Moliere's "Bourgeois Gentilhomme" as a play for today's bourgeois gentilhomme, or for anyone who confuses high-mindedness with high art.