The third show PJ and I saw in New York was La Bete, a 1991 play that takes place in seventeenth-century France. David Hyde Pierce plays Elomire, a stuffy playwright attached to the court of a princess, played by Joanna Lumley. When a new playwright catches the princess’s eye, Elomire must figure out how to convince her that her new favorite is, in fact, an idiot rather than a genius. Mark Rylance plays Valere, the buffoonish newcomer.

Here’s a taste of the broadway production:

Basically, this is a play about plays. I tend to enjoy this sort of work, and I generally enjoyed La Bete. The first thing you notice is the set design. The walls of shelves with books is definitely impressive. I was a little skeptical at first — a busy set can sometimes overwhelm the action. But that didn’t happen in this play. There’s only one location in this relatively short comedy, so having a more detailed set works well.

David Hyde Pierce is very good in his role as the solid playwright who tends toward the tragic. He is not amused by Valere’s rise. To the contrary, he sees his rival as the very epitome of lowbrow, inane entertainment that cheapens the theater rather than elevates it. This view gives the play its primary relevance — it rehearses many of the same arguments various people make today about the debasement of culture due to television, bad pop music, and broadway shows based on second-rate movies.

Rylance gives a tour-de-force performance as Valere, a buffoon who may or may not have more to him than shit jokes, narcissism, and low farce. His opening lines — which almost amount to a 30-minute monologue — is incredibly impressive. The play is written in iambic pentameter, and Rylance’s lines demand that he be funny, perform physical comedy, and maintain his character’s vapid nonsense. All in a difficult rhyme scheme. It’s amazing to watch.

Lumley is perfectly fine as the princess, but she’s not really given a lot to do. She pretty much just has to be imperious. The central question for her character is why the princess likes Valere’s comedy, especially when she hears a favorite scene again only to realize that it’s nonsense.

There are several other supporting characters in the play. Stephen Ouimette plays Elomire’s assistant. He becomes, in a way, the final arbiter of practicality. He and the other actors in Elomire’s troupe must decide whether they believe in artist integrity — or more specifically Elomire’s version of artistic integrity — or in making a living on the stage.

And this is what the play boils down to: “art” vs. entertainment. What I liked about it is that by the end this binary is called into question. Is there more to Valere’s humor than just shit jokes? And if Elomire’s “art” bores everyone with its repetitive tragedy, then is it really art?

If you like plays about plays, the theater, and acting, then this is a good one to see. I personally enjoyed The Understudy, which we saw last year, better. But it’s a good, short play with lots of humor and some interesting questions to think about.

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