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Shows Worth Seeing:

La Bête

By David Hirson
Music Box Theatre
239 W. 45th St.

Sometimes a remarkable actor’s performance is enough reason to see a mediocre play. The best example that comes to mind is Christopher Plummer in William Luce’s trite biodrama Barrymore. Plummer’s incarnation of John Barrymore in 1997 was so precise, perceptive, and illuminating that it remains vivid to me 13 years later, while I have utterly forgotten the play. David Hirson’s La Bête is better than mediocre. It’s more sophisticated, literate and demanding than anything else on Broadway at the moment. But it’s no masterpiece, and it would never have returned to Broadway, following its notorious run there of only 25 performances in 1991, without some strong reason to believe it would land powerfully this time. That reason is the astonishing actor Mark Rylance, who stars as Valere, the titular “beast,” in a smart and elegant West End transfer directed by Matthew Warchus. Valere is a fantastically rough and rude street clown in 17th-century France who is thrust together with a refined and established playwright named Elomire (anagram for Moliere) when the latter’s bratty and autocratic princess-patron insists that they collaborate.

Hirson wrote La Bête in rhyming couplets, which lends it a light comic air even in its serious passages. It begins with a manic, half-hour monologue in which Valere exhibits his infantile, mesmerizingly egomaniacal self to Elomir without ever letting the latter get a word in edgewise. Spitting food, belching and farting unself-consciously, commanding at all times the license of the mad despite the evident method in his antics, launching headlong into innumerable inane games, gags, stories and pontifications whose rules and contours he soon forgets, Rylance is unforgettable in this scene, an irresistible force of nature that no one who loves theater can summarily reject or condemn. His irresistibility gives the play’s central argument palpable reality. The action proceeds from the mad monologue to a seriocomic debate about the proper balance of high- and low-mindedness in art, but it unfortunately snags after a while on the challenge of being fair to both sides (Elomire is ultimately presented as too much of an inflexible prig). Another problem is that Hirson clings too rigidly to the plot model of Molière’s The Misanthrope in the end, which makes La Bête’s conclusion feel pat and predictable. All this understood, the subject of wholesale surrender to dumbed-down taste is obviously important and timely in the extreme, Hirson’s take on it is eminently intelligent, and Rylance’s exquisite idiocy is just too breathtaking to miss.

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