Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 14, 2010
La Bęte by David Hirson. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Set and costume design by Mark Thompson. Hair/makeup design by Campbell Young. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone. Composer Claire van Kampen. Sound design by Simon Baker. Cast: Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce, Joanna Lumley, with Stephen Ouimette, Greta Lee, Lisa Joyce, Robert Lonsdale, Michael Milligan, Liza Sadovy, Sally Wingert, Deanne Lorette, Steve Routman.
It takes a long time for La Bęte, the 1991 David Hirson play currently being revived at The Music Box, to get to its real point, but when it does it arrives with the force of last month's Brooklyn tornado. To understand it, however, you must know three facts about the play itself: that it concerns the leader of a royal theatre troupe, named Elomire and played by David Hyde Pierce, contending with the street performer Valere (Mark Rylance) who's poised to invade Elomire's company with his low, dirty, and popular performance style; it's a direct tribute to Moliere, set in 1654 France; and all but 16 lines of its two hours of dialogue are rhymed couplets.
"'I do my play in rhyme,' he says with bluff
Rare today is the playwright with such a keen capacity for self-examination that he's not only willing to do critics' work for them, but actually do it in a play he's intended to communicate exactly the opposite idea. Self-referential theatre doesn't get more meta than this.
But to give Hirson credit for anything else, aside from providing Hyde Pierce a role that makes uncommonly good use of the actor's elevated manner and voice, is pushing it. Neither the participation of Hyde Pierce and Rylance (who made such a splash in Boeing-Boeing two years ago), nor the direction of Matthew Warchus (last represented in 2009 by the stunning one-two punch of God of Carnage and The Norman Conquests), can disguise the fact that this play is just the kind of shallow enterprise Elomire detests.
Once the verse reveals itself a gimmick, which it does after about 10 minutes, the rest of the evening becomes an exercise in tedium rather than an illuminating exploration. Hirson's point is exactly Elomire's: that popular culture always seeks (and usually finds) its lowest possible sustainable point. But after Valere appears to reinforce this, which he does in both his "parable" and an entrance monologue that runs (no exaggeration) some 30 minutes in length, the rest of the show exists only as restatement, not redress.
Two hours of this, even if it's delivered in meticulously rhymed and stressed iambic pentameter by world-class actors, is more a parlor trick than a play. Worse, it can't (and never attempts to) compensate for its characters' institutional obviousness, whether they're the virtuous Elomire, the lovably loathsome Valere, their patron the princess (a stentorian and oppressively unconvincing Joanna Lumley), or the members of Elomire's troupe that round out the company, because it thrives on their embodying stereotypes. They're on hand to say one thing, over and over, and do everything possible to prevent you from arriving at your own conclusions about their words.
This is despite the fact that this La Bęte is not identical to the one that flopped after 25 performances on Broadway 19 years ago. Back then, it was divided into two acts, and the Princess was a Prince (and played by Dylan Baker). Some details about the play may have changed, but the flaws in its reasoning and presentation have remained intact: Again, it's easier to camouflage the symptoms than to cure the disease. Would Elomire approve?
What hasn't changed since 1991, of course, is the outside world. Culture hasn't dragged itself out of the gutter, but it also hasn't completely imploded. Then, as today and in Moliere's era, artists thrived by finding the balance between what people want and what they need, using the conventions and strictures of the time to speak in ways that royalty and uneducated groundlings alike can understand. That Hirson chose as his vernacular a theatrical language some 350 years out of date suggests he'd rather stand and scream about problems than work to solve them. That doesn't make him and La Bęte the solution -- it only makes them another part of the problem.