by David Hirson
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Starring Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce,
Joanna Lumley and Stephen Ouimette
Music Box Theatre
Reviewed by David Spencer
In the revival of David Hirson‘s Moliere-styled, rhymed verse social commentary comedy, La Bête, what’s at issue is the value of sensibility, and which is worthy of our support: that of the true artist as personified by playwright Elomire (David Hyde Pierce) or the populist hack Valere (Mark Rylance). The support sought here is that of a Princess (Joanna Lumley) who has long been the benefactor of the first, but, having been taken with the performance of the second at a street fair, is intent on adding him to the palace troupe. The play would seem to stack the deck in favor of Elomire (an anagram of Moliere), because the entrance of Valere heralds a 20 minute monologue of divinely oblivious self-absorption, marking the hack as a social boor to boot. But a certain degree of irony awaits.
In the play’s premiere (1991) producton, directed by Richard Jones, the role of Valere was played by Tom McGowan (it’s the performance that put him mildly on the map and led to his playing the bumbling radio station boss on Frasier). In most individual ways, Rylance (who made his splash two seasons ago with Boeing Boeing), in league with director Matthew Warchus, does a far superior job. They have a better grasp of how to deliver comedy, its nuances and rhythms; wheras both Jones and McGowan had favored the pushy, affected school of funny, which spends a lot of energy insisting how funny the material is via indicating and underscoring; rather than being genuinely funny by dint of real human behavior deftly exaggerated. Not only is Rylance in particular naturally funnier, he’s slyer, more subversive, and easily a star, while Mr. McGowan came off as precisely what he was: a very able understudy who took over from a departing star (Ron Silver) out of town.
So why, why, why, I wondered, did I find myself missing Tom McGowan so much? Because despite the argument of the play, skill and taste do not necessarily converge; for Warchus and Rylance have turned Valere the boor into Valere the pig: They have the character burping, spitting food, picking his nose, farting, even pooping into a chamber pot, to prove just how “low end” he is. It’s expert low comedy, but it clouds the play’s central issue, which is not one of manners but of taste and who gets to define artistic standards and decide what the audience can see; and conversely, what the audience demands vs. the higher level they might aspire to; in short, about mediocrity that insinuatingly panders versus excellence that nourishes and even challenges, a thesis that might well also extend to other walks of life such as politics. This is about pitting the work of Sherwood Schwartz against that of Aaron Sorkin; that of Bobrick & Clark against that of Herb Gardner; The Face on the Barroom Floor against Death of a Salesman; the philosophy and sophistication of Sarah Palin against that of Ayn Rand—and etc. One could argue, I suppose, that the play is also about pitting low comedy against high (and I’d agree), but I don’t think that’s sufficient excuse to justify making Valere such a hopeless bumpkin, for in how many cases would a benefactor like the play’s Princess be fooled by someone so irredeemably coarse? (In the original production it was a Prince, by the way, and played by a grandly foppish Dylan Baker.) Is it not more the pretender, the fatuous mediocrity, who can obfuscate triviality with grand gesture, who is the true threat to genuine artistic vision, and the harbinger of cultural decline? Though all the performers and performances surrounding Rylance are appropriate, admirable and credible, and though Rylance himself is, as I say, a master clown, the toxic waste dump that is this production’s version of Valers is an indulgence that comes at a huge cost to the play’s central theme.
La Bête, I hasten to add, was never a great play to begin with; it’s a competently rendered, amusing and I think largely academic exercise in pastiching a style of classic theatre, an exercise that has somehow “failed upwards” since its debut, and one that is an ironic reflection of its own themes. The shell is an impressive imitation, but in neither answering nor enhancing our understanding of the age-old conflict it dramatizes, the fruit within has very little to say that’s originally observed or even freshly spun. Maybe that’s why it encourages a certain kind of desperate excess in the key role. At least it’s something…