Can a revival of David Hirson’s ultra clever La Bete, a Moliere-inspired comedy written in the high brow iambic pentameter (rhymed couplets for those of lower brows) that was first produced in 1991 and ran for a mere 25 performances flip flop into a hit?
For the most part, yes. It has been given a glorious production (set & costume design by Mark Thompson) with a first rate cast that couldn’t be better. Starting with a mimed prologue of a banquet scene that sets the style and is the basis for the “vinaigrette” running gag that follows throughout the almost two hour intermission-less tale the laughs come fast and furious.
It’s quite entertaining up to a point. The point being the play within a play “The Boys from Cadiz” which tends to slow down the momentum built up so well by the cast. La Bete may run out of steam but not rhymed couplets.
In a towering sky high library, in a castle somewhere in 17th century France, where an ageless and elegant no nonsense spoiled brat of a Princess (Joanna Lumley) has her very own acting troupe that she feels has grown stale we meet the high brow anagram of Moliere, Elomire (David Hyde Pierce) the head of her troupe as he is about to meet the low brow street clown and very vulgar Valere (Mark Rylance) whom she has seen perform, become entranced with and has invited to join forces with Elomire to enliven her performers and bring new blood to perk up the proceedings.
Without an actor that can portray the verbose, vulgar, nose picking, food spewing, flatulence producing, defecating, smelly and slovenly Scaramouche-like character of Valere without alienating the audience and in fact charming them La Bete would misfire. Fortunately, the consummate actor Mark Rylance fills the bill completely. He is a wonder to behold giving an electrifying performance of marathon proportions.
Then you need the perfect foil or re-actor. Enter David Hyde Pierce whose slow burning looks and reactions absolutely match Rylance’s rantings and ravings tit for tat. Stephen Ouimette as Bejart is there to referee.
Director Matthew Warchus has done an excellent job and has given Ms. Lumley and entrance to be envied for evermore.
The gimmick of having Dorine the maid (Greta Lee) speak only in monosyllables wares thin early on, even though Ms. Lee gives an energetic charade-like performance in getting herself understood.
High brow play meets low brow production. Will it work? We’ll have to wait and see.
www.labetetheplay.com Music Box Theatre 239 West 45 Street
Photo: Joan Marcus