The last time I was in the Music Box theatre (an historic theatre which housed Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revues when American Musical Theatre was percolating) I was there to see the first Saturday night preview of Aaron Sorkin’s The Farnsworth Invention (incidentally, Sorkin’s A Few Good Men also played the Music Box) and Bono was sitting a few rows behind me. This time I was there to see the penultimate Saturday preview of David Hirson’s farce La Bete and Nora Ephron was in the house. None of that, of course, is particularly relevant to the performance, but it was a fun part of the theatre going experience.
What is relevant to the performance is this: La Bete, as directed by Tony winner (and a favorite of mine) Matt Warchus, is very funny, and is a great showcase for the seemingly endlessly talented Tony winner Mark Rylance. The first time La Bete was on Broadway, in 1991, it quickly closed after receiving rather unflattering reviews. It must have been something about that production because the play went on to win acclaim elsewhere. This production comes direct from a sold out run in the West End, arriving in New York with a slightly revised script, expert direction and a solid cast.
The action of La Bete takes place in real time and concerns a troupe of actors in France, circa 1654. At rise, Elomire (David Hyde Pierce) has retired to his library (more than suggested by the books lining rows upon rows upon rows of shelves, designed by Mark Thompson) after a dinner party - still going on - has him spent. You see, attending the party is Valere (Mark Rylance), a street performer who more or less took over the dinner party with his “speechifying.” Elomire is the head of the acting troupe and when we meet him, he is ranting about Valere and the writ from the Princess (Ab Fab’s Joanna Lumley) saying that Valere will join the troupe. Throughout the rest of this romp, Valere and the Princess try to convince Elomire that Valere - his bawdy, low-brow humor and all - is a good fit for Elomire’s high-minded company.
But really La Bete is a debate - in rhyming couplets - about the virtues of art. (You may know by now, dear reader, that I like plays, movies, et al, that display a love of language and explore just what it is that constitutes art. It was unintentionally fitting, then, that the day before I saw La Bete I spent a couple of hours roaming through the MoMA, taking in their abstract expressionist exhibit, complete with “paintings” that consist entirely of a black canvas and (arguably) nothing more.)
In La Bete’s clown vs. philosopher debate, playwright Hirson poses some of the following questions: Is it shameful to want to be successful and appeal to the masses? Do you and your art have to stand for something in order to have merit or even be considered art? Does “pop” art or popular culture have artistic value? Hirson doesn’t provide us with clear cut answers. The actions of his play suggest one answer but the words - or, more specifically, his word choice - suggest another. And to be honest, I’m not quite sure where I stand.
I know I’m a big believer in creating art as a means of expression and, by extension, as a way of standing up for your beliefs - whether or not what you express is popular. (This is one of the reasons I fell so deeply in love with “American Idiot” when the record came out in 2004.) On the other hand, as a consumer I fully understand the need for shows and movies and TV shows that are simply entertaining. Anything Goes, for example, is a great American musical (and will be revived this spring with Sutton Foster playing Reno Sweeney) and it doesn’t have a message. It’s just good clean fun. It’s funny and witty and boasts a de-lovely and hummable score by Cole Porter. Because Anything Goes doesn’t exactly stand for something, does it have less artistic merit than American Idiot? Should it be valued differently? I think that the answer to both is no, and that each should be considered within its own context.
Considering the context of La Bete, I would suggest that while it “says something,” if it succeeds here as a commercial venture it will be less because of its message and more because of its entertainment value. The entire cast is good and the direction and pacing are terrific (of course they are - Matt Warchus is at the helm), but credit it really due to Mark Rylance.
Rylance was last seen on Broadway in 2008 in his Tony winning turn in Boeing Boeing, also directed by Warchus. There, he played a mild-mannered Midwestern friend of the protagonist. Here he is wonderfully flamboyant as the eccentric Valere. La Bete is only one hour forty-five minutes; for all but about three of the first forty minutes of the play, though, Rylance’s Valere commands the stage as he rambles on and on, pontificating about his thoughts on theatre. David Hyde Pierce’s Elomire and Stephen Ouimette’s Bejart can only stand around, slack jawed and waiting to speak, while Valere speechifies. Rylance gives a bravura performance here, his forty-minute monologue alone being well worth the price of admission.
(La Bete officially opens on October 14 and will play a limited run through February 12, 2011. For more insights, visit LaBetethePlay.com and also check out this Time Out New York profile of playwright David Hirson.)