La Bte

A verse satire about highbrow and lowbrow art returns to Broadway.

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  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    LaBeteREV1

    BEASTLY BEHAVIOR Rylance, left, makes Pierce want to die.

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    LaBeteREV2

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    LaBeteREV3

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    LaBeteREV4

Photograph: Joan Marcus

LaBeteREV1

BEASTLY BEHAVIOR Rylance, left, makes Pierce want to die.

Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Mark Rylance's turn as boorish, babbling Valere—available for your delectation in La Bte—ought not to work. This eccentric performance is compounded of broad prop acting, lowbrow sight gags (spitting food, wiping ass), redundant flourishes (recalling molestation as a boy, he steals a kiss from David Hyde Pierce) and alternating deadpan delivery with overwrought affectation. You could argue that such outr tics and the overall stylized tactic are true to Rylance's character and to the bouffon spirit of David Hirson's 1991 verse comedy, a critical homage to Molire.

Mark Rylance's turn as boorish, babbling Valere—available for your delectation in La Bte—ought not to work. This eccentric performance is compounded of broad prop acting, lowbrow sight gags (spitting food, wiping ass), redundant flourishes (recalling molestation as a boy, he steals a kiss from David Hyde Pierce) and alternating deadpan delivery with overwrought affectation. You could argue that such outr tics and the overall stylized tactic are true to Rylance's character and to the bouffon spirit of David Hirson's 1991 verse comedy, a critical homage to Molire. And you'd be right. But that doesn't diminish the fact that this daredevil actor rides the line between brilliance and awfulness—usually coming down on the side of genius.

No one else in Matthew Warchus's stately, glowing production takes such high risks, and that's not a bad thing. Pierce and Joanna Lumley play a pompous but idealistic tragedian and his fickle royal patron, respectively, keeping Hirson's work grounded while Rylance scales the heights of comic whimsy. At stake in La Bte, set in France, 1654: Respectable but dullish playwright Elomire (Pierce) is being forced to consider collaboration with swinish troubadour Valere (Rylance). The latter represents a coarsening of thought and feeling that Elomire despises; for his part, Valere sees a chance to make some coin and foist his rickety allegories on the public. Hirson establishes a lively dialectic between these two figures—the entire script is written in rhyming couplets—without favoring either.

And yet, La Bte feels lopsided in two ways. On the one hand, Valere commandeers the play about five minutes in, launching into a 30-minute insanely self-indulgent monologue that has us both hating him and loving the way he makes us laugh. Elomire speaks less, but he is the more noble of the two, a man who seems to have higher ideals than his vulgar, selfish rival. One has verbiage, the other has soul. Who is the better artist? Can there be synthesis between the two? If you can't decide, then Rylance's excess and Pierce's restraint have utterly succeeded.

Music Box Theatre. By David Hirson. Dir. Matthew Warchus. With David Hyde Pierce, Mark Rylance, Joanna Lumley. 1hr 55mins. No intermission. Buy tickets.

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