Strategies don’t get riskier than this: Take one heavily award-nommed Broadway bomb from 1991, set up a new London production and add a locked-in five-month Broadway transfer. Happily, thanks to seriously smart creatives helmed by comedy maestro Matthew Warchus, this ebullient revival of David Hirson’s high-art-vs.-commerce comedy “La Bete” is largely a winner. But it’s a case of how to succeed in business while really trying and often too hard.
Given that the play is built around an epic turn from a character who considers himself a comedy genius, it makes complete sense to cast Mark Rylance, hot on the heels of his dynamite performance in “Jerusalem,” not to mention his uproarious Tony-winning stint in “Boeing-Boeing.”
Rylance plays Valere, a street entertainer-cum-writer so wildly popular that he has caught the attention of Princess Conti (Joanna Lumley) whose court in 17th-century France already has a playwright, the high-minded Elomire (David Hyde Pierce).
Elomire (yes, that’s an anagram of Moliere) and his sidekick Bejart (a coolly forbearing Stephen Ouimette) are aghast at the notion of having to meet, let alone work with, someone so crass. What seems like snobbery suddenly seems like common sense with the arrival of the man himself.
Sweeping in with a riot of bombastic period flourishes and pheasant-feathered hat, clutching a wine decanter and showering melon segments from between insanely grinning buck teeth, Rylance is a sight to behold. That’s just the beginning. For the next 30 minutes and more, he literally holds court with a virtuoso solo comic display of unstoppable self-aggrandizement.
With the odd patently bogus flash of false modesty, his breathless, bravura tirade leaves the audience mostly helpless with laughter and the increasingly furious Elomire impotently dumbstruck.It comes, however, at a price. It gradually becomes clear that we’re watching Rylance’s virtuosity rather than a character, a division widened still further when the princess declares that Elomire’s acting company must perform his latest deathless triumph, “The Parable of the Two Boys From Cadiz.”
Rylance’s solipsism now flattens what should be funny. He needs to act with the ensemble to prove the popularity of his work so as to reveal Elomire as nothing but a snob. But Rylance and Warchus over-egg the pudding, making the play-within-the-play so labored and unfunny that Valere’s status seems baffling.
This, in turn, undermines the play itself. For Hirson’s satire to have real teeth, popular culture, the destroyer of high art, should at least appear to be popular. Warchus could be trying to take the argument one stage further, suggesting that work like that of Valere is so crass as to be unenjoyable. That might account for Claire Van Kampen’s doom-laden soundscape. Either way, it’s at the expense of audience pleasure.
Lumley can, and does, deadpan with the best of them, but as she attempts to top Rylance, her voice slips into stridency. Hyde Pierce, on the other hand, quietly steals the show, beautifully calibrating everything from disdain to outrage via good-old-fashioned visceral fury with immense dignity. He can deftly slay an audience, making loathing legible with just a tilt of the head.
Warchus saves his biggest surprise for the play’s coda. As two unforeseen allies hug, Mark Thompson’s huge set of vertiginous bookcases swings wide to reveal the world beyond, and the production lands an unexpected emotional punch. It’s a rocky ride, but the highs make you giddy. In a good way.