If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then somewhere in the afterlife perhaps Moliere is reveling in the new production of La Bete. Though written only two decades ago, this homage to the French playwright bears more than a passing resemblance to Le Misanthrope, takes France in 1654 as its setting, and even uses rhymed couplets as dialogue (to surprisingly good effect, too). What’s more, director Matthew Warchusgives this revival a lavish, extravagantly sumptuous production at the Music Box, complete with a stellar cast that actually lives up to its collective fame. But while the tribute is impressive, it’s unclear that the play has much to say that wasn’t already said in Moliere’s day – or that it avoids the dramatic missteps that tripped up its precursors.
Elomire (a dour, exasperated David Hyde Pierce) is a high-minded playwright who leads a troupe of actors devoted to his elevated art. His name, in case you haven’t already noticed, is an anagram of “Moliere,” and his aspirations, as he’ll be quick to tell you, are of the noblest and loftiest persuasion. Enter the enfant terrible de la jour and the “beast” of the title: the insufferably overconfident and underinformed Valere (brilliantly played by Mark Rylance). This garrulous, flatulent street clown is meant to be the antithesis of all Elomire holds dear. He’s selfish, stupid, insensitive and uncouth. The trouble is, he’s a popular success and has caught the eye of Elomire’s opinionated patroness, the Princess (Joanne Lumley), who first insists that the two meet – and then orders them to collaborate, much to their mutual revulsion.
This revival of David Hirson’s 1991 play, now in New York after its run in London, deals with issues of high art and low entertainment that are certainly just as timely now as in Moliere’s day. But from the half-hour near-monologue at the play’s beginning – in which Rylance’s portrayal of the boorish Valere in full, unstoppable swing is a tour de force – to the unhappy marriage of populism and high culture at the play’s culmination, La Bete is stacked in favor of low-art populism.
Casting Rylance, who is mesmerizing in his delivery of the malapropisms, inanities and insults that spew out of Valere’s befuddled brain, may exacerbate the effect, but what it boils down to is that Valere has all the good lines (and the larger share of all the lines, period), and his antics are what keep the intermissionless La Betelively and watchable.
The saturnine Elomire, by way of contrast, merely reacts. He never really gets to prove or even defend the worth of his beloved high art, and though the character might well consider such an argument beneath him, surely Hirson should not. The audience in Moliere’s day may, arguably, have been inclined toward an initial sympathy with the judgmental misanthrope, but few in the audience of La Bete will wish Valere off stage, no matter how high-brow they believe they are.
And despite the Princess’ efforts at mediation, the broadness with which Lumley plays the temperamental mediatrix tips the balance even further in favor of the democracy of populist poor taste – and fun. Whether or not that twist of the knife at the heart of this tribute is indeed what Hirson intended, a full viewing of La Betemight well have the other, posthumous playwright rolling over in his grave after all.