November 17, 2010

"La Bête" Draws Another Losing Hand

It’s a dog- eat-dog season on Broadway this fall.  And having big names in the cast doesn’t seem to be enough to guarantee survival. Last week, A Life in the Theatre, which has movie and TV stars Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight, announced that it was going to close five weeks ahead of schedule. And now has come word that La Bête, which stars David Hyde Pierce, still beloved for his years on the old hit sitcom “Frasier,” and the less-well known but also Tony-winning British actor Mark Rylance, will end its run on Jan. 9, a month earlier than originally planned. 

I think the culprit is too many shows. Over a dozen new productions have opened on Broadway in just the past two months. And that’s been alongside an equal number of high-profile off-Broadway shows, like the Signature Theatre Company’s sensational revival of Angels in America. So it’s taking more than a well-known face to stand out in the crowd.

 La Bête was probably an iffy proposition right from the start. The critics panned the original production back in 1991 and it ran just 40 performances, including previews.  I managed to see one of those performances and I came away beguiled by the show. The image of its startling white and slightly askew set is as vivid in my mind’s eye as it was when I saw it at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre nearly 20 years ago.  But this time around, my feelings are mixed.

It’s not just that I no longer get the satisfaction of being one of the few who’s seen the show on a Broadway stage but that this production isn’t entirely satisfying. I'm not blaming the play itself.  La Bête is as ambitious a show as has appeared on Broadway this season. Playwright David Hirson takes on the age-old battle between art and commerce—and he does it in rhymed couplets. 

The plot centers around two 17th century men of the theater. Elomire (the name is an anagram for the great French playwright Molière) is the highbrow head of a court-sponsored theater troupe. Valere is a lowbrow street entertainer (he’s the beast of the title). They’re thrust together when the royal patron who supports both men (a prince in the original production but here a princess played by “Absolutely Fabulous” co-diva Joanna Lumley) orders them to collaborate on a new production. What ensues is an amusing but thought-provoking clash between class and crass.

Ironically, that same struggle is reflected in this production. And it isn’t a spoiler to say that this time out, crass wins.  You can tell that by the cover of the Playbill on which a wary-eyed Hyde Pierce, who plays Elomire, has been assigned a Snidely Whiplash mustache, while Rylance, the show’s Valere, sports a cheerful clown’s nose. 

But the production’s true colors are on their most vivid display in the 30-minute monologue that Rylance gives near the start of the show. The speech, a tour-de-force for any actor, is intended to underscore how pretentious Valere is but, with the complicity of director Matthew Warchus, Rylance resorts to the kind of gross-out humor (belches, farts, food spitting) that would be at home in the crudest Farrelly brothers movie (click here to read a piece about he put his schtick together). It’s an audacious performance but that doesn’t mean it’s an apt one.

Still, the audience the night my friend Ann and I saw the show couldn’t get enough of it. The twentysomething couple sitting next to me guffawed delightedly at all of Rylance’s antics. I grimaced.  In the days of Shakespeare and even Molière, the choice presented here between high and low art was a false dichotomy: they brilliantly embraced both.  We may live in less ecumenical theatrical times but the deck in this production seems unfairly stacked. 

The set may have been off-kilter in the original production but the values were in balance; a theater lover could appreciate the tension between art’s often conflicting desires to enlighten, entertain and earn a living for its practitioners. This time however, Hyde Pierce’s elegant performance doesn’t stand a chance next to Rylance’s beastly shenanigans. That means that in the end, everybody, even my amused seatmates, loses. Taking the higher road, La Bête still might have closed early but at least it would have done so with its dignity intact.

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