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A CurtainUp Review

London's Couplet Rhyming Thespians
On Board for LaBête On Broadway

La Bete
David Rylance & David Hyde Pierce
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Editor's Note: Our London critic Lizzie Loveridge loved the rhyming couplets of LaBête as well as its cast, especially Mark Rylance. However, given the previous cool reception of the play in New York, and some recent signs of cracks in the love affair of many New York critics with all things British (e.g. Enron) she ended her review wondering about the play's reception in New York this time around. Could even the stellar cast, especially Mark Rylance, and the current production's director, Matthew Warchus, turn what was once a flop into a Broadway must-see?

According to Curtainup's Simon Saltzman, Rylance is indeed hysterically funny and the rest of the cast and the director can't be faulted for doing their best not to have this a case of see it for Rylance's opening monologue but with this caveat: Don't be surprised if the rest of the almost two hour, intermissionless LaBête isn't quite as entertaining.

Simon' Saltzman's Review (Lizzie Loveridge's Review )
David Hirson’s play LaBête first opened on Broadway nine years ago. It was severely trounced by a majority of the critics and quickly disappeared. The resurrection and return of this play written completely in verse can be attributed to the success it recently had in the U.K. It is this extravagantly and impressively re-designed production by Mark Thompson, under the direction of Matthew Warchus with its London cast intact, that may or may not change the way we do or do not welcome another visit to the year 1654 where we are ensconced in the estate of a French princess (originally a prince). Within a grandiose library with its floor to ceiling books a royalty-retained acting troupe finds itself besieged by a monstrously (re: La Bete) third-rate theatre-artist named Valere (Mark Rylance) recently brought into the fold.

The opening siege lasts less than half an hour, but for what seems like an agonizing lifetime not only for us but also for the other two characters – Elomire (David Hyde Pierce) and Bejart (Stephen Ouimette) – who are consigned to listen to Valere’s self-admiring, self-incriminating, protracted monologue/assault in which he blah, blah, blahs at full throttle in rhymed couplets. Moliere-like in its affront, but also notably lacking the master’s social impertinence, Valere’s speech in effect is hardly more than a numbingly self-contained artifact of stylish inconsequence. I suppose that is as it should and intended to be.

The wonder of this play, no more no less than a forum for Valere’s verbosity and vanity, is that it gives Rylance an opportunity to once again display his virtuosity with all the effete affectations and gross demonstrations of physical impropriety that the role demands. Rylance, who convulsed audiences when he last appeared on Broadway in Boeing-Boeing ( Elyse Sommer's Review), continues to assure us that he is a master of comedic posturing.

La Bete
Johanna Lumley
Joan Marcus
Spewing forth Valere’s raconteurish boorishness from his entrance, Rylance manages to eject pieces of food from the clattering orifice beneath his feathered hat without sacrificing a word or syllable and without regard for the digressive path taken by the food or the words. He gives an astonishing performance not because of his breathless bravado but because of his unapologetic ability to make the rest of the play, with its despairingly mediocre presentation of a play within a play, seem not only anti-climactic but anti-comedic.

Let it be noted that Pierce, who won the Best Leading Actor in a Musical Tony Award for Curtains (Elyse Sommer's Review), embodies his role of the horrified Elomire, the company’s high-minded director, with the proper look of contempt. And what a delight to see Joanna Lumley, who was so memorable as the hilarious fashion director Patsy Stone in the British TV series Absolutely Fabulous, as the perverse princess. Her grandiose entrance, preceded by a flurry of glitter from the wings, as well as her presence in the play for its almost unendurable duration is agreeably splendiferous.

Postscript by Elyse Sommer: Now that I've seen the play, a few additional comments. While those rhyming couplets are quite a feat, as is that lengthy monologue, I'll admit I'd rather have seen a play by Moliere himself. Hirson's theme is valid enough but it ends up turning the frothy conceit into a lecture. Those skyscraper bookcases are indeed impressive. Much as I love my Kindle Reader, a look at this set is a reassuing reminder that as long as print books are such smashing additions to any decor, print books are quite a ways from being headed for the trash heap. The costumes, especially Joanna Lumley's white gown and Valere's colorful getup contrasted by the black and white outfits of Elomire and company are exquisite eye candy. While the house was pretty full on the night I attended and there was plenty of appreciative laughter and show stopping applause not just for Rylance's monologue, but a somewhat shorter one by Hyde Pierce, I have my doubts this is not an easy sell to most Broadway theater goers. That said, it's sure to outlast the 1991 production's drun which shuttered just 10 days after its official opening.
New York Production Notes
Written by David Hirson
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Starring: Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce, Joanna Lumley
With: Stephen Ouimette, Sally Wingert, Greta Lee, Robert Lonsdale, Lisa Joyce, Michael Milligan, Liza Sadovy
Design: Mark Thompson
Lighting: Hugh Vanstone
Sound: Simon Baker for Autograph
Composer: Claire van Kempen
Running time: One hour 50 minutes without an intermission Music Box Theatre (212) 239-6200
Ffrom 9/23/10; opening 10/14/10/closing 2/13/11 Tickets: $76.50 - $126.50

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Lizzie Loveridge's Review
. . . like fetid bursts of evil punctuation. — Elomire
LaBête is a curiosity, a late twentieth century play written by an American playwright in the style and dress of a French seventeenth century comedy, like those by Molière. What makes this pastiche production amazing is the secure direction of Matthew Warchus who was responsible for the very popular and long running comedy Art, and the comic talent of actors Mark Rylance, and David Hyde Pierce, known for his work in Frasier as the refined aesthete Dr Niles Crane.

Elomire an anagram of Moliere, (David Hyde Pierce), is a high minded playwright whose patroness the Princess (Joanna Lumley) wants him to include a vulgar street entertainer called Valere (Mark Rylance) in his plays. The debate appears to be about whether entertainment should be populist or mind improving.

The opening scene between Elomire and Bejart (Stephen Ouimette) lets us know about Elomire's antipathy for his rival while he sharpens his quill pen. Elomire tells us that he might have difficulty choosing between an hour in the company of Valere or hanging by his thumbs in Zanzibar! After Valere's huge and outrageous monologue which I estimated was about 25 minutes long, we start to sympathise with Elomire's view. We are simultaneously repulsed and admiring. There will be a production of one of Valere's plays so that the dispute between the two men may be decided. Only one playwright will receive the Princess's backing, a parallel with today's issues of the divisiveness of Arts Council funding.

Mark Rylance's comic monologue is delivered to perfection, in rhyming couplets. He comes in badly dressed (the rest of the court, apart from the Princess, are in discrete black suits with white lace collars and cuffs), wearing protruding false teeth and spits pieces of melon over beautifully turned out Elomire and his friend Bejart. We naturally recoil as each piece of Valere's behaviour reaches a new height in cringeworthiness. He defecates onstage in a cubicle which opens behind the 24 feet bookcases which form the soaring set and then grabs a precious manuscript or two to wipe his arse. But the most repulsive aspect of this gross and ghastly creation are his pompous, self aggrandising speeches. He doesn't stop for almost half an hour in a virtuoso display of verbal diarrhoea from Rylance as Valere blows his own trumpet and is completely unaware of any sensitivity except his own conceit. All Elomire can do is sit and look aghast, horrified or bored, or from off stage deliver the noise of banging his own head in an attempt to make the pain stop. I adored David Hyde Pierce's repertoire of withering looks to the audience, so fresh, unrehearsed and explicit.

Joanna Lumley's dim, quixotic but powerful Princess is rather a disappointment. She replaces the original character from 1991 of a male Prince Conti. Curiously dressed in half ball gown, the skirt cut away to reveal trousers and with rag bows in her hair, she never reaches full comedy but that may be as much to do with her lines as anything else. Valere's play within the play about the brothers from Cadiz — one beautiful and shallow, the other deformed and genuinely good— doesn't seem quite funny enough but this can only improve as the actors relax and the physical comedy becomes seamless.

I greatly enjoyed David Hirson's rhyming couplets for their wit and inventiveness. The character too of the maid Dorine played by Greta Lee who can only utter words ending in "oo" is a fun diversion as we try to guess through her mime what she intends to say! The set is grandiose, towering book shelves and the courtly dinner party seen behind a veil with the maid to the fore of the stage.

Warchus' production transfers to Broadway in September and it will be most interesting to see how it is received there after the American chilly critical response in the 1990s. As Valere says, "God love the critics. Bless their picky hearts!" I am sure Rylance will be nominated in the drama awards for his performance but will this make LaBête a must see success?

Lizzie Loveridge reviewed this production with same actors, director and designers at the Comedy Theatre on 8th of July -- where it played through 4th of September
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