Joanna Lumley, Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce in La Bete on Broadway.
BOTTOM LINE: Theatrical exuberance trumps dramaturgical shortcomings to make this show a thrilling dramatic event.
There may not be a more passionately disputed play than David Hirson's La Bete. After New York Times critic Frank Rich savaged the original 1991 Broadway production, a full-page letter appeared in that newspaper extolling the play and entreating readers to see it. The letter was signed by dozens of theater luminaries including Kevin Kline and Katharine Hepburn. Despite these starry champions, the play closed after a meager 25 performances.
Now La Bete is back on Broadway in a production reconceived and directed by the can-do-no-wrong Matthew Warchus (God of Carnage, Boeing-Boeing, The Norman Conquests), starring Tony Award winners Mark Rylance (Boeing-Boeing) and David Hyde Pierce (Curtains) and Joanna Lumley of British TV's Absolutely Fabulous fame in her Broadway debut. Hirson hasn't changed a word, and again the response is as hotly polarized as Congress, the only point of agreement being the brilliance of Rylance's performance.
Having not cared for the 1991 version, I give this incarnation an enthusiastic, if somewhat qualified rave. In fact I recommend that you stop reading right now and go get a ticket. See the play and decide for yourself. Whatever your verdict, the experience will surely be memorable.
The question does tantalize: Why does La Bete inspire such disparate and contentious responses? Hirson is clearly smart and ambitious. Taking the verse plays of Moliere as his model, he challenges both actors and audience with a daunting linguistic density. But there are elements of glib self-consciousness in his writing that can as easily exasperate as amuse. It is entirely possible to agree with the actress in the play who complains to overly serious playwright Elomire (Hyde Pierce) "Who really cares about the bloated state/Of language and its ethical dimension/And other themes too ponderous to mention/Which tend to bore instead of entertain…"
It's true that La Bete is unrelentingly cerebral in a way that Moliere's plays are not. Even Alceste, the original Misanthrope, is deeply in love with the frivolous Celimene. This very human and illogical weakness makes us sympathize with him even if he is - like Elomire - "a humorless and indignant fraud who is hard on everybody but himself." (In the words of Moliere translator Richard Wilbur.) Hirson avoids sentiment so stringently that he leaves human warmth (and even sex) almost entirely out of the equation. Valere (Rylance) adores only the sound of his own voice. The Princess (Lumley) relishes nothing more than wielding her power like a cudgel to force obedience. Elomire loves no one and nothing but his own high ideals, which he unconsciously and egotistically confuses with himself. We may admire him but he is awfully difficult to care about. While I appreciate and enjoy Hirson's multi-layered cleverness, there is a fundamental coldness in this play that keeps it from being completely satisfying to me.
Fortunately Warchus and his actors aren't in the least intimidated by such icy waters, and are employing blowtorch skill to thaw the frozen heart of this beast. Hyde Pierce infuses the priggish Elomire with just enough of his own deadpan charm. Lumley is supremely fun to watch, alternating imperiousness with Veruca Salt-like temper tantrums (and just enough Patsy to satisfy her AbFab fans.) Then there's Rylance. If Valere, as written, is a shallow, long-winded Johnny one-note, Rylance uses every ounce of his considerable actor's skill to make us forget the fact. He adroitly eschews archness in favor of a folksy faux naiveté that engages, excites and entertains. They and the rest of the cast clearly love what they're doing. For better or for verse, that is what the theater is about.
(La Bete plays through February 12, 2010 at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 44th Street. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesdays at 2PM and 8PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $76.50-$126.50. To purchase tickets visit telecharge.com or call 212.239.6200. For more info visit labetetheplay.com)