Four stars (****) for this unmissable jewel.
LA BETE Broadway Reviews
Reviews of La Bete on Broadway. See what all the critics had to say and see all the ratings for La Bete including the New York Times and More...
This time around, "La Bete" is certain to last longer than the 25 performances it played on Broadway in 1991. This seems the perfect time - in our age of thoughtless, abbreviated text messages and half-baked opinions - to revisit a play that loves words but also a sophisticated debate about what they mean. This cast, with this script, have proven there is beauty in the beast.
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.
There's a message in "La Bete" pertaining to the corruption of art in a populist culture and it certainly resonates today. But even more resonant is the mastery of craft on such vivid display.
Miraculously, David Hyde Pierce holds his own as the besieged Elomire. His well-timed reactions to Valere's excesses are just as funny as the outrages that cause them. Elomire is also persuasive and passionate when defending his literary integrity. Joanna Lumley gives us a princess who is a somewhat classier version of the self-centered Patsy she portrayed on the cult British series "Absolutely Fabulous." It's a surprisingly restrained performance and fits the regal nature of the character, which, incidentally, was originally written as a man.
The plumage and elegant dialogue-in-verse of NYC-born David Hirson's wily comedy suggests Molière-era France, but don't be fooled: In director Matthew Warchus' exuberant Broadway production, the issues are blog-post current.
Valere is a fabulous creation, and Rylance—in bohemian tatterdemalion and pheasant-plumed cap, and sporting a set of false choppers that give him a scary smile—inhabits him to the limits of wonderful. A renowned Shakespearean actor, he hits every iamb, every crisp consonant, like a hurdler running to glory. Swiftness is part of his triumph and of his character’s blinkered, annihilating aggression. As Elomire, on the other hand, Hyde Pierce is a master of the slow burn, a sort of panjandrum of pique. His suffering is terrific to watch; it lends oxygen to Rylance’s astonishing linguistic pinwheeling.
Mark Rylance's turn as boorish, babbling Valere—available for your delectation in La Bête—ought not to work. This eccentric performance is compounded of broad prop acting, lowbrow sight gags (spitting food, wiping ass), redundant flourishes (recalling molestation as a boy, he steals a kiss from David Hyde Pierce) and alternating deadpan delivery with overwrought affectation. You could argue that such outré tics and the overall stylized tactic are true to Rylance's character and to the bouffon spirit of David Hirson's 1991 verse comedy, a critical homage to Molière. And you’d be right. But that doesn't diminish the fact that this daredevil actor rides the line between brilliance and awfulness—usually coming down on the side of genius.
The fly in this Molierian ointment, for me, was Mark Rylance, the British actor who hams it up unmercifully as the crude thespian — playing him as some sort of drugged out surfer dude, rushing through the ends of lines as if to apologize for Hirson's mannered rhyme scheme. Naturally, he's won critical raves. Happily, he doesn't ruin Matthew Warchus' enjoyable, sprightly-but-somber production.
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 low popular art can go - a question that resonates even more today than it did when the play bowed in 1990.
Absolutes are hazardous to the credibility, but here goes. I'm betting Broadway has never seen a greater portrayal of obnoxious grossing-out than the one Mark Rylance is splattering all over "La Bête."
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.
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.
But I think the last 20 years have, on balance, been kind to this script. After revealing the idiocy of its hero, "La Bete" suggests that the cultural establishment is vulnerable to these pretenders because of its reluctance to venture outside its own elitist bubble - a tendency deftly suggested by Mark Thompson's shrewdly intimidating setting of towering bookcases filled with volumes that nobody really wants to read. There are plenty of Valeres out there, pontificating on cable, the blogosphere and at political rallies, all ready to pounce.
With all due respect to his excellent co-stars, David Hyde Pierce and Joanna Lumley, and the fine ensemble that embroiders the show's frilly edges, Rylance is clearly the show's raison d'être. His performance as the irresistibly loathsome street clown Valere - a lowbrow bête noire visited upon the tidy playwright Elomire (Pierce) - is the grand prize at the bottom of a box of confetti.
The many intellectual provocations crammed in the dense wordage of David Hirson's 1991 play La Bête (Music Box Theatre) include a warning of the danger of revivals: A play seen for a second time may seem less good. La Bête itself, luckily, defies the notion. Its problems, mainly structural, remain just what they were when it first turned up, for a too-brief Broadway run, in Richard Jones's unforgettable, dazzlingly eccentric production. Matthew Warchus's slightly squarer but decidedly funnier new rendering cannily mines Hirson's evening-long cascade of rhymed couplets for ambiguities, enriching the characters and playing to the script's strength, its verbal wit.
Still, "La Bête" is so raucously front-loaded, thanks to Rylance, that even though the rewards diminish as the 110-minute play unfolds, the piece manages to maintain a giddy afterglow. Entering with a mouthful of melon and a wildly miscalculated sense of self-importance, Rylance's Valere terrorizes Elomire and an actor in his company (Stephen Ouimette) with a monologue of a length to match the size of his ego.
Bottom Line: The brilliant Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce bring whatever comic life there is to this spoof of 17th century theatrical conventions.
And that points to another stumbling block: No matter how well acted—and this play is very well acted—it's not so much fun to spend two hours with an unbearable bore.
The original Broadway production of "La Bete" was an extremely stylish but fatally under-performed folly of a comedy that shut like a bad clam back in 1991. Believe me, I saw it (and smelled it). David Hirson's play returned on Thursday, still very much a folly as a piece of stagecraft, but now acted to much finer effect by Mark Rylance and a smart company at the Music Box Theatre.
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.