I haven’t laughed this hard at a Broadway show for many, many years. The reason—the tour de force performance by Mark Rylance in the revival of David Hirson’s comedy, La Bete. Set in 17th century France, La Bete stars Rylance as Valere, an ill-mannered, self-centered, bumbling fool of a playwright and actor who, due to a royal decree, is thrust upon an in-house troupe of actors, led by highbrow playwright-in-residence, Elomire, played with equal hilarity by David Hyde Pierce. Elomire, to be blunt, despises the vulgar, no-talent Valere which, as the production unfolds, allows Hyde Pierce to unleash an invective tirade against his foe. And no one is better than Hyde Pierce in spewing forth a cascading torrent of insults.
Very shortly, however, Rylance’s Valere stumbles on to the stage where he delivers what is, in essence, a 25-30 minute stream of consciousness monologue that brings down the house. Hyde Pierce and Stephen Ouimette, as friend and colleague, Bejart, are helpless, or is that hapless, prisoners to the verbal somersaults and shenanigans of Rylance’s Valere, attempting throughout his demented discourse to garner a word in edgewise, to very limited success.
This dizzying display of theatrical wordplay and buffoonery sets the stage for the clash between the cultured, and somewhat snobbish, art of Elomire and the more populist appeal of Valere’s malformed creations. An underlying theme Hirson tackles in La Bete is the judgement of artistic worthiness—who is to say what is meritorious or not? In La Bete the anointed arbiter of art is the royal princess, played with regal and brattish delight by UK star Joanna Lumley. She craves the association with Elimore’s more cultivated troupe, but sheepishly enjoys the lowbrow plays of Valere. Through incessant prodding by Elimore the princess agrees to chose between the two.
Director Matthew Warchus once again demonstrates, as he did with recent Broadway comedies God of Carnage and Boeing-Boeing, his deftness and skill in working with a lively cast of characters. He keeps the show percolating. Unfortunately, while La Bete can be painstakingly funny the show’s overall momentum can only be sustained while Rylance is the center of attention with his unceasing blather and simpleminded merriment. There’s no way the comedic intensity that consumes the first 30 minutes of the production can be maintained. That’s not to say the intermission-less production is not entertaining. On the contrary, the show, with David Hyde-Pierce at his side-splitting best, and the rest of the cast game for, well, almost anything, La Bete provides a rollicking good time for theatergoers.