| Updated at: 0909 PST, Saturday, October 16, 2010|
NEW YORK: A period comedy spoofing 17th century French theatrical conventions and delivered entirely in rhyming couplets would not seem to be an obvious candidate for Broadway success. And indeed, when David Hirson's "La Bete" premiered on Broadway in 1991, it turned out to be a fast and notorious flop.
But the current revival, arriving here after a stint in London's West End, has something going for it that the previous incarnation did not. Namely, the brilliant comic talents of Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce, who manage to make this intellectual exercise feel much more vital than it actually is.
Although there's no intermission, this is a show in which you wouldn't miss much by walking out after the first half-hour. In that opening section -- featuring a virtuosic lengthy monologue by Rylance as Valere, a buffoonish street performer and playwright who has somehow caught the fancy of arts patron Princess Conti (Joanna Lumley) -- the laughs come fast and furious.
Introducing himself to the reigning playwright of the day, the highly self-regarding Elomire (Pierce; anagram lovers no doubt will recognize the allusion to a renowned French playwright of the period) and his sidekick Bejart (Stephen Ouimette), Valere hilariously proceeds to spew out an endlessly self-congratulatory stream of nonsense even while thoroughly grossing out his hapless listeners with his constant belching, farting, food spitting and exercising of other bodily functions.
Pierce, now a regular on New York stages after ending his lengthy award-winning stint on "Frasier," also demonstrates his comic mastery here with a series of slow burns and mostly silent indications of utter agony.
Unfortunately, the show quickly loses steam after this promising beginning, becoming a windily self-important exploration of low vs. high art, as illustrated by a lengthy scene providing an example from Valere's latest opus. (It apparently is meant to contrast greatly with Elomire's own apparently superior work, though we have to take it on faith because that remains unseen.) It does, however, apparently greatly impress the Princess, played by Lumley ("Absolutely Fabulous") in amusing imperious style.
The staging by director Matthew Warchus ("God of Carnage") is, as usual, impeccable, particularly in the gorgeous visual flourish that ends the evening. And the technical elements, such as the set featuring mile-high bookshelves lining the stage and the stunning period costumes with sly comic touches (both designed by Mark Thompson), are outstanding.
But despite the playwright's clear gift for elegant language and the estimable acting talents on display, it's tough to imagine that Broadway audiences will be clamoring to experience this ambitious but rarefied pastiche.