- Associated Press - Thursday, July 8, 2010

LONDON (AP) - It’s easy to see why “La Bete” wasn’t belle of the ball on its first run in 1991, lasting only 25 performances on Broadway.

David Hirson’s play is a self-referential comedy about the battle between art and commerce, set in 17th-century France and written in mock-Moliere rhyming couplets. No wonder audiences were wary.

The play is a very peculiar object indeed, but this Broadway-bound production starring Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce is a bright, entertaining bauble.

Directed by Matthew Warchus, “La Bete” opens on Broadway at the end of September after a summer West End run.

Its chief delight is a bravura performance by Rylance, one of the most compelling stage actors on either side of the Atlantic. He plays Valere, a fairground performer and creator of vulgar entertainment who is invited by a royal patron to work alongside the fastidious, highbrow writer Elomire (Pierce).

Rylance’s Valere is an anarchic monster, equally compelling and repulsive, who spits, burps, breaks wind and unleashes a torrent of words on the stunned Elomire.

It’s the latest in an extraordinary run of roles for Rylance, who won a best actor Tony in 2008 for “Boeing-Boeing” and this year took London’s Olivier Award for his performance as rural rapscallion Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem.”

His performance here is equally bewitching, verbally dexterous and almost recklessly physical. His opening monologue is a swooping torrent of fancy and digression that lasts half an hour _ an astonishing, exhausting piece of acting.

British critics were full of praise for Rylance on Thursday: “a virtuoso triumph,” said Michael Coveney in The Independent. The Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts praised his “sheer feat of memory … and his comedic inventiveness.”

Some were less keen on the play itself. Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph said it “begins brilliantly only to turn dismally flat as it runs out of comic invention and momentum.” Letts found it “self-indulgent.”

Warchus has scored a string of successes by polishing up neglected bits of recent theater history to a shiny 21st-century gloss. The director’s take on the 1960s sex farce “Boeing-Boeing” won a pair of Tonys, and he made Alan Ayckbourn’s 1970s trilogy of suburban infidelity “The Norman Conquests” seem like an overlooked masterpiece. It won raves in both London and New York.

Here he has a trans-Atlantic cast well able to tackle the play’s peculiar rhythms. Rhyming verse can _ as the play itself points out in one of its many in-jokes _ get pretty tiresome if the rhythm isn’t varied, but Warchus has a firm grip on the throttle.

Pierce _ most famous as Niles Crane in “Frasier” _ is the austere Elomire, a writer who has secured his acting troupe a place at the court of the Princess, played by Joanna Lumley. He’s is subtly amusing in a role that requires him to spend much of the play reacting to Rylance in silent fury.

Lumley _ known to millions as booze-soaked fashionista Patsy Stone in “Absolutely Fabulous” _ sports a wig that makes her look like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, but ably suggests the childlike capriciousness and fleeting enthusiasms of the truly powerful. Her performance is reminiscent of modern celebrities in their well-meaning goodwill ambassador modes.

The rest of the cast, which includes the richly expressive Stephen Ouimette as Elomire’s pragmatic sidekick Bejart, is equally fine.

Running at under two hours with no intermission, the play is an enjoyable ride, though its overall effect is puzzling. Hirson’s verses are very clever, but also full of jokes about actors and critics of the sort theatrical people love but wider audience may find self-indulgent.

The play pits crass commercial theater against high-minded “art,” and neither comes out looking good. Valere is beastly, but the underwritten Elomire’s rigidity is equally unappetizing. Given a choice between them, many people may well answer: “Neither.”

This may be part of Hirson’s point _ we must seek to reconcile art and commerce. But the play goes over the ground at a rapid clip without ever making the dilemma feel urgent.

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