Review – La Bête – Comedy Theatre (London – then Music Box Theater, New York)

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I was a little late getting to see La Bete – the West End Whingers’ rave was well over a month old before I got a call from a friend saying, “Take me to see something good!” What can I say about July, I was just too busy to fit another show in, but then suddenly it was mid-August, I still hadn’t seen it, and I had noticed as I was planning my trip to New York that it was transferring to the Music Box Theater so there was no chance of an extension and by God, if I was going to go see it, I needed to get a move on, and my friend’s visit seemed the ideal opportunity to finally GO.

I had seen tickets available fairly regularly through the TKTS office, but they had none at all yesterday, and my fallback LastMinute.com had exactly one ticket – not really helpful! I’d really disliked the last play I saw from the uppermost balcony of the Comedy(the play was fine but the view was so bad it was actively irritating) and really didn’t want utterly crap tickets – and yet, as it turned out, the side of the first balcony ticket that I got (giving my friend the more expensive seat next to me – we split the cost for the two and used some theatre tokens to make up the difference) still had an irritatingly blocked view of about a fifth of the stage – the left side – where people insisted on standing and sitting and making entrances for rather a lot of the show. I was pretty irritated that what I had was supposed to be a 35 quid ticket – it was more like a 10 pound ticket with as much of the view as I had. Consider yourself warned.

The better question, of course, was how good was the show? Well, I didn’t know a think about it other than that one actor I’d recently been impressed by was in it and that it had a French title and that the Whingers gave it a five wine glass review – and I thought it was hysterical. Well, okay, maybe it wasn’t hysterical, maybe there was a scene or two where it was a bit slow and I assumed that it was just being dragged out because they had to get in all of the words that were in the original script, but I let that ride because I was having a good time. I was astounded by Mark Rylance’s ability to hold a stage for a 20 minute long monologue (was that it?) while his character’s offensiveness snowballed to degrees that I thought either of the two actors on stage might have hit him just to get him to shut up – when he mocked someone’s handicap it just kind of jumped the shark, as if … well, I don’t want to spoil any of the fun. Watching two characters – Rylance (playing Valere) and David Hyde Pierce (as the playwright Elomire) – go head to head in an attempt to win over Princess Compti (Joanna Lumley) was just as much fun as watching the evil, shrewd characters in a real Moliere play take each other on, and I was riveted to my seat for the entire 1:45 running time (thus making it a perfect after-work play).

In retrospect, I discovered that this wasn’t actually a rehashed Moliere play at all, but a modern American play (circa 1991) with no debt to Moliere at all other than for general flavor. The various bits of extremely modern language and excessive crassness and even the actors’ descriptions of different performance methodologies were not one of them ported over – they were all new. Still, with as much classical theater as I see, I found myself perfectly situated to enjoy this play, and the things I thought didn’t fit in terms of the “apparent” time of the play worked just as well as Shakespearean plays set in, oh, medieval Italy or ancient Greece. And the “argument” of the play within the play – and the subsequent interpretations of what it’s actual meaning was by Rylance and Hyde Pierce – was deliciously addressed to today’s modern money-obsessed theater culture. After all, did the director not cast a television actor – an American, nonetheless – in one of the lead roles, in a blatant move to make the play sell when it was ported to America? And did he not flesh it out with a transnational cult star (Joanna Lumley) and this year’s Hot Not-so-young Man on Stage?

Rather frustratingly for me (as I really would have liked to have turned my nose up at any instance of celebrity casting), the actors were actually all just really on the mark. And, maybe, when it comes down to it, this is just a piece of hollow entertainment and I’m a shallow person who mistakes clever wordplay and crass buffoonery for High Art. Well, wait, no I’m not, I know this play wasn’t really particularly deep, but it was certainly clever enough for me and a good night out, and, when it comes down to it, in my book that means La Bête richly achieved Job One of a theatrical production: it rewarded me for spending my hard earned money and not-so-copious free time in a chair in a theater. I might think it’s a bit overpriced at the rates The Comedy is charging, but it’s certainly a good show, and I think that the transfer will do very well; this should well please New York audiences looking for a witty show well done by actors at the peak of their game.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday August 16th, 2010. La Bete continues at the Comedy through September 4th, then moves to New York for a run at the Music Box theater that starts September 23rd; though that’s officially a preview I’d say don’t hesitate to book before the official opening night because this cast has spent plenty of time getting it down right and you should be getting a very fully formed show long before the official opening night of October 14th. For more reviews, please see UpTheWestEnd.com.)

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