Monday, November 15, 2010
***1/2 (out of ****)
Last week, I wrote about a new show on Broadway that would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
Fortunately, today I get to write about just the opposite -- a revived comedy that could easily be sad if it just wasn’t so hysterically funny.
Rarely has the term “laugh riot” been more befitting than for the new Rialto revival of American playwright David Hirson’s previously underappreciated 1992 comedy, La Bête -- set in 18th Century France and written to ape the style of Molière. In fact, as if taking a cue from the title (French for “the beast”), I was howling with delight.
While the play is written in rhyming couplets, Hirson’s prose never sounds the least bit forced or unnatural. Enormous credit for that achievement goes to Matthew Warchus, who’s mercifully steering this extraordinary revival. Warchus’ ear for the appropriate cadence lifts the entire production to an astonishing loftiness, as in equaling Mark Thompson's impressive, towering book case, as opposed to being haughty.
Indeed, part of La Bête’s subversive charm is that it pretends to pander to the lowest common denominator, even as its subliminal moralizing is much more high-minded, intelligent and thought-provoking, and ultimately heartbreaking.
Centering on a troupe of serious French actors, led by Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), La Bête appeals to a populist voice as they’re called upon by an unlikely source to join forces with the dubious talents of the beast in question. The beast is actually an ass -- a street performer named Valere (Mark Rylance). That the insisting voice is none other than their primary patron, the Princess (Joanna Lumley), illustrates just how low that common denominator can go in a quest for popular entertainment over substance.
The remarkable Rylance is nothing short of an acting genius. Quite effortlessly, he once again demonstrates why he is -- hands-down -- one of our greatest living stage treasures. Rylance seems to chew just about everything except for the scenery, particularly via his hilarious, non-stop 30-plus minute monologue that must be seen to be believed. It’s the kind of singular, virtuoso performance that audiences will be talking about for years to come.
His delusional, American-accented Valere is so incredibly full of himself -- a true legend in his own mind, if you will -- that he serves as a perfect archetype for all the bloviating excess that much of the rest of the world seems to view in the United States. Valere is the type of narcissistic name-dropping dullard who simply remains clueless to the disdain others around him feel.
With great irony, Rylance is practically holding up a mirror to his American audiences, daring us to laugh at what we have collectively become. And the amazing thing is that we do. We’re in on the joke, even if we're doubled over with this kind of laughter can makes us a wee bit uncomfortable.
As Elomire, Hyde Pierce plays the perfect straight man to Rylance. While he rarely gets a word in edgewise, Hyde Pierce remains nothing if not a master in expressionism, reacting to each and every boast from Valere with requisite double-takes of a man thoroughly frustrated. He’s the yin to Rylance’s yang.
Which is what appeals to the Princess in trying to blend their polar-opposite talents together. In her Broadway debut, Lumley imbues her Princess with unpretentious grace. It’s as if there was a people’s princess long before Diana, even if there’s a brooding, petulant child lurking underneath the regal exterior. And after witnessing Lumley's performance, it's hard to even imagine that the role was written as a Prince.
What is most astonishing about La Bête is that while it easily plays to all audiences, its most deceptive allure is that at its very core is a beating heart, exposing the pandering for what it is and hoping beyond hope for something more stimulating and intelligent. And for those who can see past the play's façade of folly, they’ll find that and more. But laugh too hard, and is just might escape you.
This is Steve On Broadway.
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