About a decade ago I reviewed David Hirson’s play Wrong Mountain at ACT, a poison-pen letter to the theatre as popular art. Throughout the play, Hirson sneered at the notion of connecting with an audience, and I grew more and more enraged as I watched it. Why was Hirson even writing plays if he detested audiences so?
Wrong Mountain did make me curious about Hirson’s first production, La Bête, as Wrong Mountain seemed to be a response to the earlier play’s reception. Produced on Broadway in 1991, it was savaged by Frank Rich in the New York Times, spawning an open letter of protest by several notables of theater, including Katherine Hepburn. The play closed after 25 performances but went on to become a success in London.
Almost twenty years later, the play is being revived on Broadway in a new production directed by the brilliant Matthew Warchus, responsible for the recent hits The Norman Conquests and God of Carnage. He brings along a spectacular cast, especially the stupendous Mark Rylance as the title character, Valere, a successful provincial clown performer who has captured the imagination of the Princess (Joanna Lumley, successfully cast in a role that was originally for a male), who wants to add him to the acting troupe she patronizes. The troupe is led by Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), a high-minded intellectual. La Bête is set in 1654 France, and is written in rhymed iambic pentameter couplets à la Molière. (Elomire is of course an anagram for Molière.)
Although Rich was certainly right about the plays shortcomings, he appears to have underestimated its successes, which may be partly due to the role of Valere apparently being beyond the skills of its 1991 player, Tom McGowan.
There is no such problem with Rylance, who brings some unholy combination of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, Martin Short’s Ed Grimley from Saturday Night Live, and Shakespearean clown to the role, and he’s astounding. The role contains a 25-minute monologue (again, in rhymed couplets!) where Valere drunkenly pontificates, expounds, farts, spits, and belches, and exhibits the most deluded self-love ever seen on stage. His immediate audience for this display is Elomire and his lead actor Bejart (Stephen Ouimette). No one does outraged dignity better than David Hyde Pierce, and the succession of slow burns, shocked gasps, and unfeigned horror at the bombastic vulgarities of Valere are virtuosic, exquisitely timed, and hilarious. Ouimette, too, is terrific as he alternates between shock at Valere and preventing Elomire from doing bodily harm to the Princess’s new favorite. Lumley gets a fantastic entrance courtesy of Warchus, as a gale of glitter blows in from offstage, and she’s great at regal hauteur.
The contemporary verse plays I’ve seen (not that many, thank god) have been disasters, and for the first hour or so, I thought La Bête would be an exception. Hirson’s verse is natural and unfussy, often approaching the ease and wit of Richard Wilbur’s famed translations of Molière. In the midst of Valere’s monologue, he’s taken with an epigram he’s just crafted, but as he’s searching for pen and paper to record the (rather witless) witticism, he forgets what he just said and screams: “COME BACK! COME BACK, YOU TANTALIZING GEM!/YOU TEASE! YOU BITCH! YOU FICKLE APOTHEGM!/ I GAVE YOU LIFE AND NOW YOU FLY FROM ME!!/ This happens with annoying frequency.”
The problem with the play is the second act (Warchus presents both acts without intermission), where, once again, Hirson gets preachy about theater, basically excoriating the audience for enjoying the first act. At the command of the Princess (and the sly suggestion of Elomire), Valere is forced to present one of his performances employing the actors in Elomire’s troupe as a test of whether the merger of their two talents will prove fruitful. What follows is a slapdash Brechtian skit entitled “The Parable of Two Boys from Cadiz.” The presentation isn’t especially entertaining on any level, and its moral, as the Princess puts it, is that “…mediocrity is bound to thrive,/ while excellence must struggle to survive.” Elomire, in his turn, derides Valere and his play as representing the mediocrity they pretend to oppose. Elomire’s speechifying offends the Princess who forces him to resign from his own troupe. Hirson thinks he’s presenting both sides of the argument, but Elomire is utterly defeated, a martyr to excellence, while Valere is triumphant, and it’s clear where Hirson stands. It’s much better to perform to an empty theater and maintain your principles than it is to engage with middlebrow tastes and intellects. Hirson is effectively flipping the bird to his own audience.
Hirson’s obvious skill and intellect appear to be at war with his chosen profession of playwright, and it once again begs the question: Why is he writing plays? Luckily, Warchus, Rylance, Pierce, Ouimette, and Lumley have no such animosities, and you’re left admiring the brilliant performances and Hirson’s talents, doing your best to overlook his hostile analysis of contemporary theater and audiences.
La Bête plays until January 9, 2011 at the Music Box Theater in New York. For more information, go to www.labetetheplay.com.