High and low art collide deliriously in "La Bete," David Hirson's quirky comedy set in 17th-century France and spoken in verse.
Back on Broadway 19 years after its first famously ephemeral run (just 25 performances), it raises some provocative and timeless questions about what art is and who gets to decide that.
While the new production, direct from London, can't keep the play from being a windy enterprise, it succeeds in making it ever accessible and wildly funny. Credit a crack director, Matthew Warchus, an ace cast and appealing design work.
Mark Rylance plays Valere, a rude, crude and popular street performer who's foisted upon another dramatist, Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), an uncompromising idealist and snob who wants no association with the vulgarian.
But Elomire's patron princess (Joanna Lumley) insists he meet the buffoon. She thinks Elomire's work is flat, and could use a jolt from Valere's more brash and innovative and, well, dumber style. Cue the clash.
Warchus, who staged 2009's "God of Carnage" and "The Norman Conquests," has the perfect light touch and lively imagination to bring "La Bete" to life.
In Hirson's script, the arrival of Lumley's character (it was a prince in the original) is indicated simply with the words "the princess enters." Warchus whips the moment into a gleefully glittery spectacle.
But the 24-carat sparkle comes from his choice principals. As Elomire (an anagram of Moliere), the straight-man role, Pierce, famous from "Frasier" and a Tony winner for "Curtains," displays delicious seething disdain. Lumley adds perfectly imperious touches you'd expect from the actress known as Patsy in "Absolutely Fabulous."
But the show belongs to British star Rylance, who won a Tony for "Boeing-Boeing." As Valere, he makes his entrance spitting out slices of melon, burping, farting and even worse. It's no fluke that the show curtain is illustrated with what looks like a stomach-shaped caption balloon filled with words.
By far, Valere's worst characteristic is that he jibber-jabbers nonstop and nonsensically about his art, especially in a brain-dizzying speech that lasts close to half an hour. Rylance, hair scraggly, teeth protruding, delivers it with so much finesse you shake with laughter. Days later, it still cracks me up when I think about his performance.
The show loses much of its pull after this virtuosic display. But Warchus ensures that things move quickly on Mark Thompson's grand book-lined set and that the rhyming structure doesn't overwhelm the leads or the ensemble. "La Bete" is too unwieldly to be a perfect play, but this enjoyable revival finds the beauty in the beast.
High- and low-brow collide in "La Bete," an American play about art vs. commerce that's set in 1654 France. It's entirely in rhyming couplets, but it also gets laughs from farting and burping -- the double-barreled shotgun of comedy!
David Hirson's ambitious if uneven play was a resounding flop when it premiered on Broadway in 1991. The revival that opened last night is as good as can be, zippily directed by Matthew Warchus ("The Norman Conquests") and powered by a dream cast led by David Hyde Pierce, Joanna Lumley and Mark Rylance.
The last more than steals the show: He pulls off a one-man "Ocean's 11" heist. After his Tony-winning turn in "Boeing-Boeing" (also under Warchus), Rylance may well bag another statuette for his performance here.
As the buffoonish, egomaniacal troubadour Valere, he opens the show with a tour de force, 30-minute monologue featuring a torrent of stream-of-consciousness digressions and non sequiturs, peppered with pregnant pauses and hesitations, as well as the loud projection of various bodily gases and half-chewed food particles.
We can only look on in shock and awe -- though a playwright named Elomire (an anagram of Moliére) is just shocked. Pierce plays him brilliantly, wordlessly suggesting a high-minded man whose soul is slowly being crushed by this relentless display of idiocy and vulgarity.
Needless to say, Elomire balks when his royal patron (Lumley, from "Absolutely Fabulous") tells him he needs fresh ideas and orders him to collaborate with Valere.
This is an eternal struggle, and the contemporary resonances are too delicious to ignore: Rich producer (the Princess) orders literary author (Elomire) to pen a show for a crass stand-up comedian (Valere) she found on TV (the "public square"). The writer typically takes the high road, but his actors desert him and happily join the mainstream ("It frankly seems forever since we've done/A play that might have popular appeal!" one of them reminds Elomire).
"La Bete" loses steam after a first hour dominated by Rylance and Pierce. An excerpt from Valere's idiotic "The Parable of the Two Boys from Cadiz" gets tiresome, as do the antics of a monosyllabic servant, Dorine (Greta Lee).
In the end, though, the message couldn't be clearer. With its mix of flatulence gags and learned references, "La Bete" proves that it's possible to be sophisticated and entertaining at the same time. Elomire and Valere aren't as irreconcilable as they seem to be.
There are many contenders for the title of the most obnoxious person on Broadway. I’m sure you could rattle off a dozen deserving candidates. But though it’s early in the season, one man has already put in his bid with such insistently annoying — and supremely entertaining — style that we may as well concede the honors to him right now. Mark Rylance, step forward and claim your crown.
In the bombastic, flatulent title role of David Hirson’s play “La Bête,” which has its own problems with uncontrolled gas, Mr. Rylance delivers a comic performance of such polished crudeness that it easily ranks with his Tony-winning tour-de-farce in “Boeing-Boeing” of two years ago. In that production (which, like “La Bête,” was directed by the inventive Matthew Warchus), Mr. Rylance portrayed a classically passive, put-upon patsy, the innocent rube to whom wild and crazy things happen.
Here he mans up to become the comic aggressor, the unstoppable, primitive force of chaos that rages through Mr. Hirson’s 1991 play in verse about the ruination of theater, set in the age of Molière. And while he is more than ably partnered by David Hyde Pierce and Joanna Lumley in this revival, mounted with eye-popping élan by Mr. Warchus and the designer Mark Thompson, Mr. Rylance is by far the best reason to revisit “La Bête,” which opened on Thursday at the Music Box Theater. His performance also turns out to be the undoing of the play’s argument.
Even critics who didn’t like “La Bête” in its original production were impressed by its audacity. The young Mr. Hirson had dared to compose an entire work in rhyme at a time when verse drama seemed as archaic as candles in footlights. What’s more, he had appropriated the style of Molière, the God of classical French comedy, to condemn the cultural wasteland of the late 20th century.
“La Bête” pits a boorish parvenu playwright against an established figure of loftier theatrical pursuits (whose name, Elomire, is an anagram for you-know-who). Mr. Rylance is, of course, the boor, Valere, a one-man theater troupe who has been taken up by a mighty royal personage. (A prince in the original version, the character has undergone a sex change, which makes room for the delightful Ms. Lumley.)
This Princess is also the patron of the august Elomire (Mr. Hyde Pierce) and his company, and has decided that her two pet geniuses should collaborate. Elomire, who has the harsh judgmental instincts of Molière’s Misanthrope, sees in Valere’s arrival the wreckage of all things noble in the Drama. It’s high art meets low art (a confluence much on the minds of culture pundits two decades ago), and something’s gotta give.
The essential problem with “La Bête,” and this seems even truer now than it did in 1991, is that Mr. Hirson never makes much of a case for Elomire’s side. The show’s first half-hour (and its high point) is built around a protracted, careering monologue from Valere, who, having dined at Elomire’s table, proceeds to deliver a sustained ode to the importance of being Valere.
This oration is replete with malapropisms, misquotations and egregious faux pas. (Note to the squeamish and bookish: a chamber pot is used in view of the audience, and pages ripped from weighty tomes serve as toilet paper.) Elomire and his venerable colleague Bejart (a very good Stephen Ouimette) are reduced to looking on in horror while Valere goes on about his sexually and academically precocious childhood, his theatrical triumphs throughout Europe and, above all, his love of “verbobos” (his own word for words).
Mr. Hyde Pierce is a first-rate glowering straight man. But Mr. Rylance’s Valere is a force of nature, a destructive force, perhaps, but also a revitalizing one. From the dawn of drama, there has always been a place for human beasts that acknowledges the irresistible energy in their anarchy. In recent years the type, as interpreted on film, has ruled the box office, with stars like Jack Black, Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell celebrating the high-voltage appeal of unbridled crassness and stupidity.
Tricked out with a Jerry Lewis overbite, a middle-American accent and a dry cleaner’s nightmare of stained, mismatched clothes, Mr. Rylance lets us feel the full impact of such brutish verve unleashed live on a stage. Yet this remarkable British actor, who has delivered some of the most vibrant Shakespearean performances I’ve seen, gives us more than id run wild.
His Valere is a diversely inflected, animated dictionary of imperfectly received ideas. And when he’s bloviating (in monologues that run to hundreds of lines), he’s a free-associating whirlwind of cultural trends and catchphrases, snatched, as if from the air, to define his own magnificence. Yet a melancholy and insecurity underpin the vulgarity, a sense that Valere is afraid of what he’ll hear if he stops talking.
Valere may be the epitome of all that’s wrong with our shallow, fragmented, inattentive culture. (And the play’s argument against ill-informed, sensation-driven entertainment is, if anything, more relevant than it was when it was written.) But as Mr. Rylance presents him, this grotesque buffoon is also touchingly human, and when he puts on a silly, pretentious play (at the Princess’s insistence), you feel the presence of an artist’s anxious heart.
Combine that aspect of his performance with its throbbing inexhaustibility, and how can you not root for him? There’s logic in the championing of Valere by the capricious Princess, whom Ms. Lumley portrays with a savvy grasp of the combustible metabolism of power.
Elomire exists only as a naysayer. There is no real first-hand evidence of what he stands for. And Mr. Hirson, rather like Valere, seems to be treading water as the play progresses, covering up a sense that he doesn’t know where he’s going with half-baked arguments and semantic game playing. (The character of a maid who can speak only in monosyllabic rhymes is as tedious as it is whimsical.) Even with Mr. Rylance blundering away center stage, an air of deflation sets in by the play’s second half.
The production looks gorgeous, evoking the worldlier canvases of the French Baroque era. Mr. Thompson has conceived his set as a desecration-ready temple to words that includes a witty French lexicon of a drop curtain and a central set walled in books. But as vital as words are to theater, it’s the human pulse of acting that makes live theater alive. Strangely enough, “La Bête” is let down by its words, as Mr. Rylance’s refined study in vulgarity triumphs in a far too-lopsided battle.
The new Broadway revival of La Bête (* * *) also finds fresh relevance in the past. Set in 17th-century France, David Hirson's comedy asks just how lowpopular art can go — a question that resonates even more today than it did when the play bowed in 1990.
In this U.K.-based production, which opened Thursday at the Music Box Theatre, David Hyde Pierce is cast as Elomire, a distinguished playwright
(his name is an anagram of Moliere) and troupe leader whose royal patron has taken a fancy to a crass street entertainer named Valere.
Under Matthew Warchus' predictably expert direction, Hyde Pierce is both anchor and graceful second banana to Mark Rylance's babbling,
flatulent, uproarious Valere. Joanna Lumley adds stately sass as their sugar princess, looking absolutely fabulous in a flame-colored wig.
If these characters aren't as ridiculous as the ones on reality TV, at least you'll laugh at them without feeling guilty.
Strategies don't get riskier than this: Take one heavily award-nommed Broadway bomb from 1991, set up a new London production and add a locked-in five-month Broadway transfer. Happily, thanks to seriously smart creatives helmed by comedy maestro Matthew Warchus, this ebullient revival of David Hirson's high-art-vs.-commerce comedy "La Bete" is largely a winner. But it's a case of how to succeed in business while really trying and often too hard.
Given that the play is built around an epic turn from a character who considers himself a comedy genius, it makes complete sense to cast Mark Rylance, hot on the heels of his dynamite performance in "Jerusalem," not to mention his uproarious Tony-winning stint in "Boeing-Boeing."
Rylance plays Valere, a street entertainer-cum-writer so wildly popular that he has caught the attention of Princess Conti (Joanna Lumley) whose court in 17th-century France already has a playwright, the high-minded Elomire (David Hyde Pierce).
Elomire (yes, that's an anagram of Moliere) and his sidekick Bejart (a coolly forbearing Stephen Ouimette) are aghast at the notion of having to meet, let alone work with, someone so crass. What seems like snobbery suddenly seems like common sense with the arrival of the man himself.
Sweeping in with a riot of bombastic period flourishes and pheasant-feathered hat, clutching a wine decanter and showering melon segments from between insanely grinning buck teeth, Rylance is a sight to behold. That's just the beginning. For the next 30 minutes and more, he literally holds court with a virtuoso solo comic display of unstoppable self-aggrandizement.
With the odd patently bogus flash of false modesty, his breathless, bravura tirade leaves the audience mostly helpless with laughter and the increasingly furious Elomire impotently dumbstruck.It comes, however, at a price. It gradually becomes clear that we're watching Rylance's virtuosity rather than a character, a division widened still further when the princess declares that Elomire's acting company must perform his latest deathless triumph, "The Parable of the Two Boys From Cadiz."
Rylance's solipsism now flattens what should be funny. He needs to act with the ensemble to prove the popularity of his work so as to reveal Elomire as nothing but a snob. But Rylance and Warchus over-egg the pudding, making the play-within-the-play so labored and unfunny that Valere's status seems baffling.
This, in turn, undermines the play itself. For Hirson's satire to have real teeth, popular culture, the destroyer of high art, should at least appear to be popular. Warchus could be trying to take the argument one stage further, suggesting that work like that of Valere is so crass as to be unenjoyable. That might account for Claire Van Kampen's doom-laden soundscape. Either way, it's at the expense of audience pleasure.
Lumley can, and does, deadpan with the best of them, but as she attempts to top Rylance, her voice slips into stridency. Hyde Pierce, on the other hand, quietly steals the show, beautifully calibrating everything from disdain to outrage via good-old-fashioned visceral fury with immense dignity. He can deftly slay an audience, making loathing legible with just a tilt of the head.
Warchus saves his biggest surprise for the play's coda. As two unforeseen allies hug, Mark Thompson's huge set of vertiginous bookcases swings wide to reveal the world beyond, and the production lands an unexpected emotional punch. It's a rocky ride, but the highs make you giddy. In a good way.
I confess to being impressed by the sheer gall, if nothing else, of the producers who decided that it was time to bring back "La Bête." Though it went over well in England, winning an Olivier Award, David Hirson's verse
comedy was a disastrous failure on Broadway, where it opened in 1991, was greeted by universal critical catcalls, and closed 25 performances later, draped in ignominy from head to toe. So why in the name of the bottom line is this awful play—for it is truly, excruciatingly awful—back for a second go-round?
The answer is Mark Rylance, who starred in "Boeing-Boeing" and is now giving another over-the-top performance as Valere, a fathomlessly vulgar, monstrously vain street player who has been thrust upon Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), the celebrated 17th-century playwright, and his resident drama troupe by the princess (Joanna Lumley) who is the company's all-powerful patroness. Mr. Rylance comes out belching and gets grosser from there, embellishing virtually every line he speaks with a fresh bit of business from his bottomless bag of comic trickery. Mr. Rylance is one of the finest stage comedians we have, but he has nothing to work with this time around. "La Bête" is a wan pastiche of Molière whose pancake-flat couplets rattle on endlessly, pointlessly and—above all—pretentiously. Matthew Warchus, who staged "Boeing-Boeing" and is as accomplished a director of comedy as can be found anywhere in the English-speaking world, has done his best to confuse the issue by giving his players plenty of interesting things to do, but the result is a show that is all ivy and no wall.