The romp that is David Hirson's La Bête, now at Broadway's Music Box Theatre, is hardly the first play to tackle the conflict between high art and populism, but it is probably the funniest. And if they charged by the word, tickets would probably cost several million dollars each, such is the torrent of words pouring forth — in verse, yet — by our protagonist, Valere. A street clown, Valere has been spotted by the local princess as just the addition she needs to liven up her court acting troupe, led by the great actor and playwright Elomire.
La Bête's potent Anglo-American cast — directed by Matthew Warchus and fresh from London's West End, where this production opened in July — is led by two men, one of whom has opened three major plays in the West End within the last eight months. Mark Rylance was magisterial in Samuel Beckett's Endgame, and in Jerusalem he was the personification of everything that is best and worst about England in the 21st century. Now, in La Bête, he is everywhere on the stage — striding, kneeling, climbing the walls, even on one occasion shutting himself in a trunk — in order to persuade Elomire that he too is a worthy member of the acting profession.
Off-stage, Rylance is a gentle, quirky soul who looks shocked that anyone wants to talk to him. Compact, handsome and, trust me, sporting no hint of the picket fence-like false teeth he wears as Valere, he looks a lot bigger onstage.
At this year's Critics' Circle Awards in London he won the top prize — Best Actor — for his performance in Jerusalem. Instead of an acceptance speech, he told a funny story about a stuffed fish, grinned and left the stage. I have seen him play Olivia (that's not a misprint) in Twelfth Night and the hapless Robert in Boeing-Boeing (for which he won a Tony). Recently, at Corin Redgrave's funeral, he reduced everybody to tears with a simple reading. He is, without a doubt, one of the greatest British actors of our age. Rylance's partner in La Bête is another Tony winner: David Hyde Pierce, who became a top stage actor after a high-profile television and film career (most notably with the sitcom "Frasier"). Pierce has had success on stage with Spamalot, Kander and Ebb's Curtains (for which he won his Tony) and Off-Broadway Shakespeare and Chekhov. "I've always been a minimalist actor," he tells me. "I think I ended up on 'Frasier' because the characters and the audience were allowed to think."
Thinking is what he does as Elomire (an anagram of Molière, his alter ego), who tries throughout La Bête to uphold the purity of art over mere entertainment. "[It's] such an unusual play," says Pierce. "A strange journey, peculiar and haunting. And funny. I knew that Matthew Warchus was directing and Mark Rylance was starring in it, and I couldn't miss the opportunity to work with them."
Most of Rylance's greatest stage hits have been the result of a close collaboration with Warchus. I try to get Rylance to define it. He responds simply: "We laugh a lot, and he isn't worried about chaos." That'll teach me to ask a silly question. Relationships are dynamic, and theatrical collaborations most of all. It works because it works.
I ask Pierce whether he was concerned at the outset that the longstanding relationship between Rylance and Warchus would isolate the rest of the cast. "Somewhere in the back of my mind I may have wondered whether we'd all get a fair shake," he says, "but as it turned out, the trust, the confidence and the openness of their collaboration inspired the rest of us to go further."
Included in "the rest of us" is Joanna Lumley, best known in America for her television series "Absolutely Fabulous," but famous in England as an actor, activist, writer, conservationist and intrepid traveler.
It's giving away nothing to say that in the first scene of the play, Valere talks for over 20 minutes with hardly a word being spoken by any other character. Elomire (and his henchman, Stephen Ouimette as Bejart) is the recipient of this cascade of words and has to perform the superhuman test of an actor — to react to every thought using only his face and body, an astonishing feat. Easy, says Pierce. "What makes that opening so easy is that Mark doesn't treat it as a monologue but as a scene where it just so happens that two of the actors don't speak. He makes it easy for me."
Rylance is interested in doing the work, not in talking about it, but when interviewed he does his courteous best not to appear bored. He speaks quietly and unself-consciously about what does interest him. "I love outsiders and difficult people. I'm attracted to the wit and the observation of character in David Hirson's writing." He is enthusiastic about returning to the New York stage and reminds me that he was brought up stateside. "I had a great time with New York audiences at Boeing-Boeing and with my friends in the city. I am so excited to be part of La Bête's long-overdue revival in its place of birth."
Talking with Pierce, it is obvious that the admiration he feels for Rylance is matched by affection. "He is such a unique talent, but also gracious and generous to every actor and every person on the crew," says Pierce. "We're having a very good time."