Feature

La Bête

Matthew Warchus' revival of this “dazzlingly erudite comedy” should delight Broadway audiences.

Music Box Theater New York (212) 239-6200

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“A period comedy spoofing 17th-century French theatrical conventions would not seem an obvious candidate for Broadway success,” said Frank Scheck in The Hollywood Reporter. But the “brilliant comic talents” of principal actors Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce manage to make this unusual revival and its ideas about the relationship between high and low art feel “more vital” than the material probably deserves. Rylance plays Valere, a buffoonish French playwright whose terrible plays—including Death by Cheese and The Dying Clown—have inexplicably drawn the attention of a royal patron (Joanna Lumley). Hyde Pierce meanwhile plays the era’s greatest playwright, Elomire (rearrange the letters and you get Molière). His fate is to suffer Valere’s addition to the royal theater troupe or risk losing his position.

“Valere is a fabulous creation, and Rylance inhabits him to the limits of wonderful,” said John Lahr in The New Yorker. Playing a “demagogue of drivel,” Rylance charges through each extended monologue “like a hurdler running to glory.” Hyde Pierce by contrast is a study in comic suffering, his grimaces and head-banging supplying “oxygen to Rylance’s linguistic pinwheeling.”

Credit director Matthew Warchus for giving this “dazzlingly erudite comedy” a second chance, said David Sheward in BackStage. When La Bête premiered on Broadway in 1991, David Hirson’s gab-heavy script was greeted with “a big yawn” by audiences, closing after only 25 performances. But Warchus has retooled the play into an “audience-friendly” combination of “slapstick farce” and “sophisticated banter.” It helps greatly that Hirson’s ideas, which focus on the “pandering by the arts—and by all aspects of public life—to the lowest common denominator,” have gained new relevance in this age of Tea Party politics and reality TV. Factor in Warchus’ brilliant casting, and theatergoers should delight in the opportunity to catch “the verbal fireworks they missed 20 years ago.”

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