28 October 2010

Hirson’s ‘La Bête’

Lumley, Rylance, and Pierce:
Top-notch actors in a play that flaunts its pretentions.
(Photographs from the London production. For Broadway, Lumley has been given a more flattering wig, so that her Princess doesn’t look like Mad Margaret.)

Since the thorny question of commercial viability has vexed my writing career on more than one occasion of late, I might have benefited from a more intellectually honest debate than the one David Hirson gives us in La Bête, a revival of which is now playing at Broadway’s Music Box Theater after a successful run in London. Since Hirson has written a comic satire in rhyming verse, in the style and the period of Molière, he can hardly be expected to side with mindless crowd-pleasers such as Valere (the title role, played here by Mark Rylance). And Hirson’s role model may set him a bad example, at least superficially: Molière makes Oronte, the aspiring poet in The Misanthrope (a role I once played), no less ridiculous or more admirable than Valere. But Hirson starts the play with the scales tipped in favor of Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), and you’re never less than fully aware that:

1) the same playwright has created both characters;

2) both characters speak precisely the same language, making it impossible to judge between them except when their author intrudes; and

3) Hirson does nothing but intrude; the whole play is an extended manipulation. (Or else it’s mere showing-off: Hey, look at me! I can write a fake Molière play!)

We never get anything like the promised debate. Why see the thing, then? Many people haven’t. When La Bête first appeared on Broadway, it was hailed primarily for its performances, and it vanished from the city’s collective consciousness. Likely it will do so again, but for now we have the pleasure of watching and listening to three immensely appealing actors, in a lively production by Matthew Warchus.

Haven’t Ouimette Somewhere? Bejart and Elomire

As the awful Valere, Rylance has the most evident challenge: he walks onstage shortly after the beginning of the play, and for the next 30 or 40 minutes, he doesn’t stop talking. It’s a virtuoso performance, exquisitely paced and structured, and you follow his every word (though you may not hang on it). Yet Pierce (along with Stephen Ouimette, as the actor Bejart) has the even more formidable assignment of listening, already a challenge for most actors when they’re listening only to a couple of lines, rather than a rambling monologue. Pierce plays the scene so beautifully that it’s impossible to tell he hears Rylance do this eight times a week; it’s all fresh to him, and his reactions even earn him several laughs of his own, without upstaging his colleague.

Elomire is playwright, star, and manager of an itinerant theatrical troupe; after long years of touring, he’s obtained the sponsorship of the Princess, who has given him not only funding but also the elegant house (designed, like the costumes, by Mark Thompson) where he now resides. This comfy arrangement is jeopardized when the Princess asks Elomire to collaborate with Valere, whom Elomire despises on principle. Whether he must (or can) compromise that principle is the drama’s conflict.

In the original production, the benefactor was a Prince, but happily for me, the character has been transformed into Joanna Lumley, making her Broadway debut, as well as one of the most spectacular entrances I’ve ever seen in the theater. Lumley gives us caprice but also intelligence; unlike the Bourgeois Gentleman, she has as much taste as she has money, so that when she advises Elomire to team with Valere, you do feel her sincerity and her critical acumen.

But in neither Hirson’s verse nor Warchus’ staging is Valere’s work (seen in a short play-within-a-play) as terrible as Elomire says it is. For every inept rhyme (which Elomire points out for us) there are other perfectly good ones that sound just like Elomire’s own. We never get to see what Elomire’s plays look like, though other characters do reluctantly confess that the work is too high-minded and intellectually dense. (So ... you mean he’s not a stand-in for Molière?)

Here Comes the Sun King: Pierce & Rylance

We also don’t connect the conflict to much else. Molière, if you remember, makes The Misanthrope a drama of Alceste’s love for Célimène, of whose suitors Oronte is but one. Each suitor is awful, and bad poetry is what distinguishes Oronte from the rest; it’s his registered trademark of awfulness. When Alceste opposes Oronte’s work, he lampoons courtly pretension but he also opposes Oronte’s courtship of Célimène: the aesthetic debate (and the satire) is connected to the romantic rivalry.

Apparently, David Hirson never read that play, since it wasn’t his idea to make the Princess a woman, and any romantic conflict we see now is pasted onto the staging. (Warchus has to squeeze in between lines a moment of erotic tension between Pierce and Lumley.) We never think for a minute that Elomire will accept Valere; we may hope that the Princess will change her mind, yet we’re not terribly surprised when she doesn’t.

I do admire Hirson’s ability to write such a quantity of poetry with so few false notes.* I only wish he’d applied that talent to a more thoughtful construct; his work could stand proudly alongside Richard Wilbur’s Molière translations, if only it were about something. Hirson certainly has the verbal skill and intellectual agility to create a worthier opponent for Elomire, and thus to offer us a livelier debate and a more compelling conflict.

On a similar note, just as I admire Matthew Warchus for injecting so much life into La Bête, so I’d rather he do the same with a better play — and I’d be thrilled to see Rylance, Pierce, and Lumley in The Misanthrope, or almost any other Molière play. Alas, though Molière was the greatest commercial success of his day in France, by now he is as un-commercial as Elomire, and we see his work too seldom in America.**

All hail!

* NOTE: Only two nights before, I’d sat through a cabaret, listening to songs that boasted such rhymes as “yesterdays / sequestered days.”

**It is on that sad account that I did not pursue my acting career beyond college.

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