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 The Theatreguide.London Review

La Bête
Comedy Theatre      Summer 2010

David Hirson's comedy, in London for the summer on its way to Broadway, is the vehicle for two outstandingly entertaining bravura performances of very different sorts, and for some very clever and witty writing.

And those are more than enough to carry you through a plot that will have little interest for you and themes that are even more ignorable.

See it for the fun of seeing it, not for anything you expect to carry away with you afterward.

Hirson sets the play in sixteenth-century France (lots of silly costumes and wigs - think Three Musketeers), where a playwright-manager is forced by his rich patron to take on her new protégé, a thoroughly untalented writer-actor who is also a coarse boor and a terminally boring chatterbox.

Will the poor guy survive the relentless onslaught of tastelessness and gabble without strangling the newcomer, and will he finally compromise his standards to keep his job?

Frankly, you won't care, and you may even find yourself forgetting that that's the ostensible plot as you enjoy the tortures the newcomer is putting him through just by trying to be friendly.

And you probably won't give more than a moment's passing thought to a debate that arises late in the play, about whether it is a sign of a debased society that it consistently chooses bad art over good.

Offering considerably more interest and entertainment is Hirson's mastery of the tremendously difficult form of comic rhymed couplets, which never get boring, obtrusive or strained, and which constantly surprise and delight.

You find yourself looking forward to what the next rhyme will be, or how he'll break up the lines to create the impression of natural dialogue or surprise us with punchlines: 'He is, and there are very few,/ An idiot savant.' - 'That's partly true.'

What you will take uninterrupted delight in are the performances of Mark Rylance as the boor and David Hyde Pierce as his victim. Rylance won every acting award going last year for his performance in Jerusalem, and unless there are rules against repeats, it looks like he has this year's prizes sewn up.

He creates a monster of good will and bad taste, totally oblivious to the pain he is causing everyone as he rattles on incessantly about how shy and tongue-tied he is, or blindly pours insult upon insult as he imagines he's being complimentary.

Hirson has structured the play so that, after a brief set-up scene, Rylance enters and chatters on without apparent pause for breath for close to a half-hour.

That's not only an accomplishment of endurance, but of extraordinary comic juggling, as the actor - aided by Hirson's witty writing and director Matthew Warchus's guidance - finds every possible laugh in the lines, adds more of his own, and keeps the balls in the air with such style and ease that you are simultaneously at the edge of your seat and relaxing in the presence of an absolute master.

The fact that Rylance's character never shuts up means that David Hyde Pierce's has difficulty getting a word in edgewise. But keep your eyes on him through Rylance's half-hour ramble, and get a master class in comic reactions, as Hyde Pierce finds every subtle variation on silent exasperation, frustration, boredom and rage.

(A friend commented afterward that the actor very probably varies his reactions from night to night, experimenting with new ways to be funny without upstaging his co-star, and meanwhile keeping Rylance on his toes.)

No one else in the cast is allowed to register except for Joanna Lumley as the patron. Stepping into a role originally written for a man (and into a particularly ridiculous red wig) Lumley brings all her inestimable charm to the play, though the underwritten role gives her only occasional opportunities to add flashes of wit and intelligence that any other actress couldn't have done as well.

No, it's Mark Rylance's performance, one of those tell-your-grandchildren-you-were-there-to-see-it theatrical events, along with David Hyde Pierce's, subtler but fully its equal in comic brilliance, and the clever couplets of David Hirson that make La Bête the delight it is.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  La Bete - Comedy Theatre 20010
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