Sunday, October 17, 2010

Bête Noire

Rylance and Pierce (photo by Joan Marcus)
La Bête
Written by David Hirson
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Starring Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce, Joanna Lumley, Stephen Ouimette
Performances began September 23, 2010
Music Box Theater, 239 West 45th Street

The ongoing battle between highbrow and lowbrow in art is the subject of David Hirson’s La Bête, an agonizing, tedious comic clash between celebrated 17th century French playwright Elomire (whose name is an anagram of Molière) and popular entertainer Valere, who is to join Elomire’s stable of repertory players against the playwright's will.

La Bête, cleverly written entirely in rhymed verse, isn’t very amusing or novel, but provides a built-in “wow” factor for audiences that devour anything that smacks of originality, even if it really isn't. The play famously flopped in its 1991 Broadway premiere, and for its first revival, Hirson has made significant changes, like dropping the intermission and turning the Prince—who brings the two opposing artists together—into the Princess, supposedly at the behest of director Matthew Warchus, who wanted Joanna Lumley to play the role. The resulting fast-paced romp has roles for good comic actors to sink their teeth into; indeed, the success of the recent London production (which has come to Broadway mostly intact) is almost entirely due to the performers.

Lumley is a side-splittingly regal Princess, a small but consequential role, while Stephen Ouimette—who’s done excellent work at Canada's Stratford Festival—is a scream as Bejart, Elomire’s hunchbacked assistant whose physical deformity comes under blatantly crude scrutiny by Valere, one example of Hirson's (failed) strategy to prevent his play from becoming repetitious by adding bits of tiresome comic business to the mix.

A whole string of gags concerns Elomire’s housekeeper Dorine, who speaks in monosyllables so everyone must guess her meaning when she enters and says something nonsensical. This tangent reaches heights of unfunny absurdity when it takes far too long for the men to figure out that she's trying to tell them that the Princess has arrived.

The two leads are mutually antagonistic in every way: Elomire/Molière is the cerebral man of the theater, and Valere the unthinking street clown. Hirson further stacks the deck by letting Valere speak endlessly to ostensibly hang himself on his own egotistical obnoxiousness, but by giving him the bigger speaking role (Valere's big monologue goes on for nearly a half-hour), Hirson is begging us with his would-be amusing selfishness.

By contrast, Elomire has opportunities to speechify—especially Hirson's closing attempt to sum up his “argument” by supposedly exulting highbrow while wallowing in lowbrow throughout his play—but he's often a subordinate, non-speaking role. That’s why David Hyde Pierce is perfect: his work on Frasier was marked by witty conversation and equally funny slow burns, both of which he uses to great effect in La Bête, wringing belly laughs from his reactions (or non-reactions) to Valere's going on...and on and on. Pierce proves repeatedly that it a dedicated, subtle actor can pull this off convincingly.

Then there’s Mark Rylance, unsurpassed at wringing simultaneous lunacy and craftiness out of a simpleminded script. He did it with his Tony-winning turn in the creaky farce Boeing Boeing, showing he’s that rare actor who can overact and underplay at the same time. He does amazing things with a flat, Midwestern accent and a rubbery and expressive face, moving from rat-a-tat-tat dialogue to a bemused, child-like look that reminded me of Robin Williams as Mork, another sort of overgrown baby having fun playing different characters in a stream-of-consciousness style.

Rylance’s array of voices and expressions keeps Valere from ever getting truly dull, although there are diminishing returns after that first half-hour monologue, as the asides like burping, farting, wolfing down (and spitting out) food while speaking or taking a dump and using Elomire’s writing for toilet paper start taking over in desperation.

Warchus directs deftly as in Boeing Boeing, where he also dressed up a creaky script with visual gaudiness: here he opens with a ravishing tableau at a dinner table and ends with a final, dramatically-lit view of Elomire walking offstage as baroque choral music blares. Such striking images keep us watching even while La Bête's very thesis—that high-brow is preferable to low—is turned on its ear by Rylance’s and Warchus’ shenanigans and Hirson's very own script

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