PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: La Bête — The Verse and the Perverse

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: La Bête — The Verse and the Perverse
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of David Hirson's comedy of ideas, La Bête, starring David Hyde Pierce, Mark Rylance and Joanna Lumley.

Mark Rylance; guests Matthew Broderick, Judy Kuhn and B.D. Wong
Mark Rylance; guests Matthew Broderick, Judy Kuhn and B.D. Wong Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN


In an evening that overflowed with flowery prose in full bloom and rhyme, it was the body language of the author, David Hirson, that silently told the tale Oct. 14 when he took a bow from the Music Box stage where his La Bête had just made its second pass at Broadway. Head down and tilted slightly to the left, he seemed to be sheepishly asking to the audience, "Well, do you like it now?"

Not everybody's cup of tea, this clever piece of work was a 1991 crowd-divider with vociferous opinions in both camps. Since The New York Times' Frank Rich weighed in with the naysayers, the show closed in 25 performances.

That should have been that, but then it was presented in London and waltzed off with an Olivier Award, giving a flicker of hope for a Broadway comeback one day.

"One day" has come 20 years later, a day of re-judgment. All that was needed, it turns out, was the healing hands of director Matthew Warchus, who took an even shorter Broadway run (23 performances back in 1965) and made Boeing-Boeing fly for 279 performances in 2008 — and, in this day and age, it was a sex farce, too. His chief accomplice in that enterprise, Mark Rylance, won a Tony, playing a country mouse who gets dizzily caught up in the sexual flight patterns of a pal with an overactive libido. Now, he appears to be back for seconds, and the boring boob he played before comes in the large economy size. His Valere is a crude, self-absorbed vulgarian of the first order, with burps and flatulence to punctuate his narcissism.

At the party that followed at Gotham Hall, Rylance allowed that these two rough-hewn rubes did come from the same place. "I guess I tend to play naïve or innocent," he said after turning the comparison over in his mind. "My particular clown is a clown of innocence. I'm not a Groucho Marx, am I? I'm more a Harpo with words."

All the same, Rylance brought huge Groucho-size cigars to the press room and distributed them to his co-stars, David Hyde Pierce and Joanna Lumley, who promptly joined him in mugging it up for the paparazzi in the room.

In La Bête, the lovely Lumley lords over a France of 1654 as The Princess, a royal pain who plays patron of the arts with a lot of whim and iron-will. Valere is a street performer she finds on a corner, holding forth at length with inanities he confuses for witticisms, and it suddenly strikes her that he is just the person to goose up the somewhat stodgy, somber output of her court playwright, Elomire (Pierce), an earnest artist whose name employs exactly the same letters as Moliere.

Hirson is saying, of course, that the state of the arts hasn't changed an iota in 400 years. It's still the same old story — aspiring for quality vs. dumbing down to the lowest common denominator, with the scales tilted cruelly toward the latter.

"As a producer who struggles in the not-for-profit and the commercial sector, La Bête asks some very big, profound questions," said its producing prime-mover, Sonia Friedman. "It's asking, 'Can populism and art live together comfortably, and is it bad to be popular, and can art be popular?' I think it can be.

"I love this play. We all know it wasn't a commercial success 20 years ago, but, if producers based their decisions on those shows that haven't worked in the past, a lot of plays would never get on. I brought Boeing-Boeing here, and it was a crashing disaster in the '60s. Matthew's a genius director. He can really spot a gem."

"Of course, for me," chimed in Warchus, "the argument is about the choices that I have to make — on the artistic end of things and on the commercial end of things and then trying to reconcile them, but ultimately these are choices about — in life — being on the inside or being on the outside of things. I think that anyone can relate to that — joining with the crowd, running with the crowd, or having your own set of ideals. To what extent should you hold onto your own ideals, or to what extent should you get involved? Life's short. You could do this argument both ways."

The play wastes little time getting to its central argument, personified by the two poles-apart playwrights. Valere, whose reputation for benumbing discourse has preceded him like The Plague, has come to court to seal the deal with Elomire and his senior actor in the court company, Bejart (Stephen Ouimette, a beloved Canadian actor of Stratford Festival fame, and a star of the TV series "Slings & Arrows"). Valere enters talking, despite a mouthful of melon that spews in all directions, and launches into an endless, mindless oration that is mostly uninterrupted (although, God knows, his two listeners try, when they're not banging their word-cluttered heads against the wall in the next room or glazing over with disgust at the fool's imbecilic gibberish).

Rylance brings a bottomless bag of tricks to this mammoth monologue, bumbling and stumbling artfully through the scene — very erratic and in the moment — until he disappears into a trunk on stage. "Is this a pause?" asked the disbelieving Bejart.

The bits of business increase with the performances. "They just keep happening," Rylance admitted. "I just play. I don't really construct. I'm just really like a child. I just get in the rehearsal room and play. I guess I had maybe four weeks, five weeks, to get this together — but then, things grow along with the audiences. I really find out more stuff when I'm with an audience than I do on my own. I always find new things, particularly when an audience is so up for it. Then we have a lot of fun."

As the architect of this massive mouthful, Hirson had its statistics right at hand: "I think the speech itself is in the neighborhood of 600 lines. It's been done anywhere in the range of 22 minutes, at the fastest clip, to Mark's version, which is close to 35 minutes. It's magical to see him do it. He is one of the greatest living stage actors doing that speech. How could anything other than stunned as a playwright could you be to have the opportunity to hear something that you've written done at that level?"

All of which begs the question, What are the other two actors doing while Rylance is running off at the mouth? Reacting like a house afire, that's what! In the case of Pierce, his temperature is set at Edgar Kennedy Slow Burn, but he manages a myriad of variations on that. "It was hard to figure out," the actor allowed. "It was very painstaking to sorta get — for all of us — a trajectory of the show in a scene like that, but working with Matthew and working with Mark and Stephen Ouimette — especially in that big speech — it's like we are all there for each other."

Other than that, the scene was not hard, he insisted. "I'm in there, just having fun."

Ouimette, who gapes and gasps and glowers much like Gene Saks, seconded that: "It was, actually, really fun to do because Matthew, who's brilliant at directing this play, didn't ever block it. We just found, organically, what that scene was about. It was great that we were allowed the opportunity to do that. And David's such a gift to work with. There's a big connection with him all the time. You know he's there."

The actor has some sympathy for the character's last-minute sell-out to the commercial. "I like the fact that Bejart's trying to make peace. He's gotten to a point in his career where he wants some comfort. I think we can all relate to that. After a while, we all live out of a suitcase, and you just want to stay in one place and do your work. You kinda think you've earned that. So he's caught right in the middle between the debate of Valere and Elomire — the old low-comedy or high-art. What do you do? I think it's heartbreaking — especially when we think about actors of a certain age in our own countries — where do you put them? I have a real strong affinity for him because I think we're all going to end up in his shoes one day."

In a classic case of the shoe being on the other foot, Ouimette confessed there's a Valere in his past. "I played him a few years after the Broadway debut in Edmonton, Alberta, directed by Robin Phillips, in a very successful production."

Greta Lee generates a decent share of laughs as the near-mute young maid who trips over her dress on every entrance. "My dad is a judo master so he taught me a little bit of falling technique, " she said. "The craziest things come in handy."

Tony Winner Mark Rylance on his gaudy, garish and gassy role in La Bête:

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Director Warchus feels La Bête's lingering rep as a flop is utterly undeserved. "Remember: it didn't fail with everybody," he noted. "There were also people who loved the play before, and I was one of them. When I saw it, I thought it was really a wonderful play and production, so I really pay tribute to that piece.

"I was intimidated by the prospects of revisiting it. I just felt it only made sense doing it if I did it in a completely different way so this isn't the highly stylized piece of work that La Bête was before. This is more textured. Yes, it's absurd and highly comic. Yes, it's larger than life in many respects. It's got more of a classical texture to it, possibly. I just think it's a very clever piece of writing that is not only outwardly stylish but it says a lot of very thought-provoking and emotional things.

"The sad thing about all this is that when things are categorized as a hit or flop so quickly there are probably hundreds and hundreds of musicals and plays that have suffered the first time around, but in fact their quality merits reexamination so I think I've certainly got my work cut out for me if that's going to be my mission."

For now, the missionary work will have to wait until he gets a couple of musicals up. "I'm in the middle of rehearsals in London for a musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's book, Matilda, and after that I go straight into a musical of the movie , 'Ghost.' Most of the cast of Matilda are children, and Ghost we're casting at the moment so in the next few weeks we will have found our Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze and Whoopi Goldberg."

Hirson is pleased with the Warchus overhaul, to say the least. "It's very gratifying to me that the play could be done in such an entirely different way — and, in every respect, to thrill me as much as, if not more than, the original one. It's a great thing." And it didn't entail a lot of rewriting for him. "The only revisions that were made," Hirson noted, "had to do with changing the sex of the prince to a princess."

And why this change? "The creative team came to me with the idea — and I think the notion was: 'It might be interesting, after having had three men on stage for an hour, to just have this big splash of female energy on the stage. I think it was a very interesting suggestion, and I think it is quite an interesting result, this production.

"And the other main thing was that the creative people also wanted to explore the possibility of doing it without an interval. In removing the interval, there had to be a fair amount of sensible cutting. I probably cut ten, maybe close to 15, minutes."

Joanna Lumley
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

As the glamorous embodiment of his revision, Lumley had a whole laundry list of characteristics she liked about The Princess — "bad, spoiled, quite truthful, wants to do her best, falls in love easily" — and not the least of these is her entrance. She arrives in the room after a spectacularly sustained gush of gold glitter. "Of course, it's now written into my contract for everything I do."

A long time in arriving from London, she confessed she really did feel different officially being "a Broadway actress" now. "Isn't it funny? I didn't think I would, but I do. I feel this fabulous city and this extraordinary tradition have welcomed me."

Waiting till she finished her press duties was the first incarnation of her role, The Prince. Dylan Baker, who won a Theatre World Award and a Tony nomination for that performance, met her in the middle of Gotham Hall's rotunda.

"It was fascinating," gushed Baker. "When we did it, it was two acts, and I came in at the beginning of the second act so getting to see the first act was really exciting for me. I never got to see it. What Matthew did with it made it a whole different world than what we did. They did quite a bit more overlapping — making three or four different conversations at the same time — which I thought was great, but I wouldn't expect anything else from Matthew Warchus. I would like to work on a play from the beginning with him. I enjoyed getting little glimpses of him when I did God of Carnage, but I would like to work a whole play with him sometime."

Baker played The Prince as a fey fop with a cockatoo on his arm. Hirson remembered it well: "We had two of them. They were incredible hams. If one was on stage for too many performances, it figures out what makes the audience laugh — and then they go for these laughs, which completely obscures the written laughs of the play so the cockatoos had to be recycled so it would break their habit of learning how they're going to get laughs."

The celebs in attendance included: Tommy Tune; the Deuce of the Music Box, Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes; mezzo-soprano Jane Shaulis, who joins Lauren Flanigan at New York City Opera April 19 for a ten-performance run of the Scott Schwartz-directed opera, Séance on a Wet Afternoon; Stephen Schwartz, Séance's composer; Joel Grey, who's helming the all-star benefit presentation of The Normal Heart Oct. 18 at the Walter Kerr; Grey's son-in-law ,Clark Gregg; cabaret's Bill McKinley; Carol Kane; screenwriter-director Richard LaGravenese; producer Jean Doumanian; Tony-winning M. Butterfly BD Wong, now of TV's "SVU" unit; Rob Ashford, the director-choreographer of Pierce's expected spring Broadway outing (How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with Daniel Radcliffe); twice-Tonyed Christine Baranski from the Rylance-Warchus Boeing-Boeing; Pablo Schreiber; newest two-time Tony winner in town, Joe DiPietro from Memphis; Debra Monk with actor Tom Tammi; The Philanthropist co-stars Matthew Broderick and Jonathan Cake.

As well as: Victor Garber, who auditioned for the first La Bête and loves the play; Becky Ann Baker; fashion designer Marlan Breton; Pulitzer Prize winner Alfred Uhry, after-glowing from watching all three of his first choices rehearse his Driving Miss Daisy, which finally arrives on Broadway Oct. 25; Darren Goldstein, after-glowing from the day before's opening of his Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, with his large-with-life little woman, Katie Finneran; newest celebrity parents in town, director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall and La Bête co-producer Scott Landis; songwriter Desmond Child; The Post's Michael Riedel; director-choreographer Robert Johanson, dethroned kingpin of Paper Mill Playhouse and now "the grandfather of South Korean musical theatre"; Judy Kuhn; actress-turned-director (via Zero Hour) Piper Laurie; actor-turned-producer Frankie James Grande; singer-turned-Shaw producer David Staller; Kathryn Meisle; Penny Fuller and, lastly and late, redheaded Ian Kelly, rushing over to party with fellow Brits after a night of teaching The Pitmen Painters.

Joanna Lumley, Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce and Stephen Ouimette take a bow
Joanna Lumley, Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce and Stephen Ouimette take a bow
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