The much-discussed Broadway flop and London hit is receiving its local premiere at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. The superb production by the Hollywood-based Stages Theatre Company conveys this witty work’s surface brilliance but can’t disguise its emotional and intellectual shallowness.
Hirson’s play is a homage to Moliere that features the French playwright as a major character. (In the play, he is called Elomire, an anagram used by Moliere’s 17th-century detractors.) The other major character is Valere, a comic street performer whose vulgar style of performance is the antithesis of Elomire’s subtlety.
The plot concerns an attempt by Elomire’s patron, a strong-willed prince, to force him to accept Valere into his troupe. This confrontation leads to a lengthy argument about the nature of art, which reaches the unsurprising conclusion that the mediocre will always triumph over the brilliant.
It’s a bit too glib to suggest the success of “Le Bete” is proof of its own theme. The play isn’t exactly mediocre, but it is a showpiece for actors that aspires to be a comedy of ideas.
Under the able direction of Paul Verdier, the superb Stages ensemble delivers Hirson’s difficult dialogue — which is entirely in rhymed couplets — with apparent ease.
Arye Gross gives Elomire enough self-righteousness to keep him from coming across as a blameless victim.
But Valere is the virtuoso role, and it is a joy to watch the superb Tony Abatemarco tackle it. The self-absorbed character could be insufferable, but Abatemarco infuses him with such childlike delight that he is almost endearing.
Watching Abatemarco deliver his opening 25-minute monologue is akin to listening to Jascha Heifetz play a flashy, if not particularly substantive, aria. The focus becomes the actor rather than the work — not because Abatemarco is deliberately upstaging the text, but rather because his awesome effort is far more fascinating than what he has to say.
The set and costume designers stuck to muted colors, perhaps to better blend into the natural setting of the outdoor amphitheater.