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Rhyme and Rylance

La Bête

Written by David Hirson
The Music Box Theater, directed by Matthew Warchus

La Bête, by American playwright David Hirson, has one of the more peculiar histories of any Broadway play in recent memory. Co-produced by Andrew Lloyd Weber, it first played in New York in 1991, amid a controversial tryout period during which lead actor Ron Silver was replaced by his understudy, the unknown Tom McGowan, who enjoyed a short-lived triumph in the title role.

Mixed reviews, including a brutal dismissal by The Times’ powerful critic Frank Rich, led to a paltry 25-performance run. Yet it received five Tony nominations, and its admirers (including myself) felt that it might have been ill-timed, misunderstood, or perhaps just caviar for the masses. (A London staging the following year was more successful, enjoying a healthy run and winning an Olivier award for Best Comedy; but the Brits have always been more receptive to high style.)

Yet even with better notices, could it have found a comfortable berth on Broadway? After all, this was a sophisticated comedy set in 17th-century France, composed entirely in rhymed couplets. It had a foreign title, no stars, and is primarily a dialectic on aesthetics and culture. Not exactly the ingredients for a word-of-mouth stampede to the box office.

In the intervening years, La Bête has been embraced by regional theaters and rep companies, but it has had no major revival until it caught the attention of two of Britain’s uber-forces. Director Matthew Warchus is one of the most frequently employed directors on both sides of the Atlantic, the talent behind three recent Broadway hits from London—God of Carnage, Boeing Boeing, and The Norman Conquests. Mark Rylance is often called the greatest living stage actor, a reputation won primarily for his work in England (although film buffs may know him for the on-screen, real-life hummer he received in Intimacy some years back), but his New York rep soared dramatically in Boeing Boeing.

For that production, Warchus and Rylance took a hoary sex farce from the ‘60s, tarted it up, and created a crowd-pleasing tour de force for Rylance, whose technical mastery kept most people from noticing that he had erased any vestige of a real human being from the character. But he won a Tony and upped his rep for eccentricity when his acceptance speech consisted entirely of a lengthy quote from a poem by Minnesota writer Louis Jenkins, whose content had nothing to do with the theater, sex farces, or awards. (In England, his Shakespearean roles, including Hamlet and Richard II, are the stuff of legend, but his 10-year stint as the head of the Globe Theater had a stormy patch when he became chairman of a group devoted to casting doubt on Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays.)

The Warchus-Rylance production had a way-out-of-town tryout in London earlier this year, where opinions differed on the play, but not about Rylance or his co-stars, David Hyde Pierce, enjoying a late-career boost onstage after years of toiling in Frasier; and Joanna Lumley, beloved slattern of Absolutely Fabulous.

Joanna Lumley, Mark Rylance, and David Hyde Pierce in La Bête

So now La Bête returns to New York nearly twenty years after its premiere, in a first-class production with a first-class cast to give theatergoers a second chance to make it a success.

Hirson sets his play in 1654 in Languedoc, France, immediately following a lavish dinner party, in the library of the estate of the Princess Contine, patroness of a theatrical troupe led by Elomire (read Moliere). Elomire is thought to be the next Corneille, but the princess has been disconcerted of late by the predictability and stodginess of the troupe’s work; to remedy this, she has brought in a street performer and comic playwright, a clownish oaf named Valere. The princess finds him energetic and creative; to Elomire he is a crude affront to all he holds aesthetically dear—a “bombastic ninny”—a beast, a fool, “la bête.”

Enter Valere, whose 25-minute speech goes a long way to prove Elomire’s point. In a spectacular tour de force, Valere offers an uninterrupted aria of delicious self-indulgence: opening with a spray of barely masticated fruit spewing from his mouth, he belches, farts, takes a quick onstage dump, throws himself into a trunk, all the while expatiating on everything from the vinaigrette served at dinner to the power of his own genius. He’s fully aware of his own verbosity, insisting that Valere punish him for his digressions:

Look, gag me with this handkerchief, all right?
I know that sounds extreme, and I’m a stranger,
But trust me, you are in the gravest danger!
For my digressions (left unchecked) can reach
The vast proportions of a major speech;
And you have no idea how close I am
To just that sort of frantic dithyramb!

(Valere proceeds to gag himself, and then talks through the muzzle.)

With oversized prosthetic teeth and an inexplicable American accent—perhaps Warchus and Rylance feel there can be nothing cruder than a loudmouth Yank?—Rylance creates the perfect embodiment of the unbridled comic id: Jerry Lewis in perpetual motion, at once repulsive and irresistible. It’s an invigorating turn not only for the actor, but for the writer as well. Hirson’s dialogue boasts not only fluent rhymes (much of the fun comes from anticipating them) but a bracing momentum that rivals an oncoming train; his sheer bravado robs Elomire of any possible opportunity to interrupt.

So the thematic gauntlet is thrown. High art vs. low, instinct vs. erudition, the street vs. the salon. Which should prevail? The rest of the play devotes itself to an extended debate among the principals: witty, intellectually provocative, but finally dramatically inert.

Valere’s insistence that they were destined to collaborate is met with Elomire’s total disdain, and a warning to his cohort Bejart that they ignore Valere at their peril:

Our lives are governed by such foolish men!
And we’re to blame because, misguidedly,
We hold to the belief that it would be
More difficult to keep a fool at bay
Than simply just to … let him have his way.
At first this seems a harmless compromise,
But hot air has a tendency to rise
Until it finally overwhelms your life.
That’s when a fool will really twist the knife.

Elomire is convinced that the Princess can be made to see the futility of her artistic matchmaking, but when she arrives (in a literal shower of gold), she disappoints:

And, therefore, I was driven to know whether
I could, by bringing both of you together,
Create a whole out of your separate arts
Which might surpass the sum of all its parts.

Elomire’s insistence that Valere is an idiot fails to convince the Princess, who chides him with the assertion that the true aesthetic soul can find the gold amid the rubble:

Perhaps the milkman loves Etruscan art;
The barber may know Ptolemy by heart;
The priest might be a stunning acrobat;
Well, one could just go on and on like that.

In a role that could easily have spilled into caricature, Joanna Lumley invests the Princess with quiet dignity and moral authority. (In the original, the Princess was a Prince; in the intervening years Hirson did some gender-switching, perhaps to accommodate this particular actress, in which case … well played!) Despite her blindness to Valere’s baser instincts, she is sincere in her efforts to nudge Elomire’s sensibility out of its stagnation, and her debates with him add a much-needed fizz.

The cast of La Bête

Even with the threat that his troupe will be dissolved, Elomire is resolute in his hatred of Valere. But he agrees to let one of the buffoon’s plays to be staged with his troupe, certain that full exposure will convince the Princess to cast out the boor once and for all.

The play—not one of Valere’s minor hits like The Bishop’s Macaroon or Death by Cheese—is The Parable of Two Boys from Cadiz, his “masterpiece.”

The play-within-a-play unfolds onstage is a low comedy, set in a fictional city called Volta, concerning an ugly maid named Esmerolta and two unlikely twins—one a brilliant and admirable philosopher who has lost his leg in fight for justice, the other a second-rate juggler. Yet it is the latter who prevails and wins the maid, and the former who dies a miserable death.

Had Two Boys been a low-comedy gem, Hirson might have given his argument more balance; but as staged here, it’s tedious, unfunny, and a poor example of Valere’s “aesthetic.”

The Princess sees in the play an implied criticism of France,

…like Volta’s culture, ours is such
Where mediocrity is bound to thrive
While excellence must struggle to survive!
We punish virtue; we reward the bad;
Our age embraces dullness like a lover!
We’ve lost the taste and patience to discover
Real morals or real wisdom or real art:
We can’t tell truth or travesty apart!

But Valere hastens to persuade her otherwise:

The road to greatness is a bumpy road
But better pauper prince than wealthy toad….

It’s difficult to be completely pure!
But they’re the heroes, those who can endure,
Excel, be true, preserve integrty:
A harder life, but … look, it … works for me!

Elomire’s disgust with Valere’s defense is articulated in his own impassioned cri de coeur aimed at this debaser of his art:

It’s dangerous to be governed by a fool,
But worse when fools bemoan the sad decline
Of standards which their efforts undermine!
To mourn decaying values in a play
Which only reinforces the decay
Devalues the idea that it expresses!
And so the themes he loftily addresses—
Real excellence, real wisdom, and real art—
Are each devalued, sundered, torn apart!

Elomire is doomed. Faced with the choice of joining forces with Valere or exile, he decides to leave—the final blow administered by his own troupe, who decide to stay with the oaf, because his works are more “accessible and fun” and are likely to be hugely popular.

But Elomire is unbowed:

Does any way less radical exist
To keep ideals from being trivialized?
The only way I know is to resist:
Autonomy cannot be compromised!

Upon that road I joyfully embark!
And though it seems that joy itself’s at stake,
There’s joy itself in challenging the dark:
We’re measured by the choices that we make!

He exits to a future that this production suggests will indeed be dark and stormy.

La Bête has received an ideal showcase for its return. Joanna Lumley is luminous in her Broadway debut, and faced with the difficulty of spending much of his time onstage reacting to Rylance’s human cyclone, Hyde Pierce makes an exemplary foil. But the entire cast seems to exist to showcase Rylance, who is probably the sole reason this revival may run. His total commitment to Valere’s boorishness and verbal agility, his technical mastery, and his ability to find the lovable naïf at the heart of the clueless egotist result in an indelible comic creation.

The technical aspects are splendid, especially set designer Mark Thompson’s imposing library, with bookshelves that seem to reach into infinity. Never has higher learning seemed so overpowering and imposing.

As for the play, it remains an intelligent, amusing discourse on a subject that seems more and more timely. But its flaws are as apparent as ever: It spends most of its dramatic capital in the first half-hour; nothing that follows Valere’s opening monologue reaches these giddy heights. And some of Hirson’s conceits, including a character who speaks only in monosyllables and must be prompted to communicate through charade-like prods from others, merely wastes time.

Nonetheless, when it sparkles, it does so in ways rare on a Broadway stage. Smart comedy is not a frequent visitor there, and when it brings with it the opportunity to witness the wonder of Rylance, then it is doubly welcome.

(P.S. Rylance is scheduled to return to New York this spring in a play called Jerusalem, another recent triumph for him in London. His performance in this dramatic role, we are told, will gobsmack us. Again.)

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Michael Adams is a writer and editor living in New York City. He holds a PhD from Northwestern University in Performance Studies. His doctoral dissertation examined the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.