Mark Rylance is a fool’s fool. Belching, bragging, accompanying his own self-aggrandizing soliloquies with stunning four-part flatulence, he tears into the first half of La Bête, David Hirson’s 1991 meta-Molière oddity, with a 400-line megalogue. In rhymed couplets. Not a syllable of which, I’m happy to report, isn’t uproarious. With all due respect to his excellent co-stars, David Hyde Pierce and Joanna Lumley, and the fine ensemble that embroiders the show’s frilly edges, Rylance is clearly the show’s raison d’être. His performance as the irresistibly loathsome street clown Valere — a lowbrow bête noire visited upon the tidy playwright Elomire (Pierce) — is the grand prize at the bottom of a box of confetti.
Because what the hell is La Bête, exactly? It’s more than an act, yet not quite a play. If an ambitious comp-lit department teamed up with Cirque du Soleil, this is the show they’d confect: Meticulously rhymed and timed, stuffed with a seminar’s worth of seventeenth-century inside jokes and intertextual resonances (a pinch of Tartuffe, heaping spoonfuls of The Misanthrope, etc.), Hirson’s script is a masterpiece of formal wit and, at the same time, a strange, pompous monstrosity. It would win best sketch at Richard Wilbur’s end-of-semester talent show, hands-down, but it adds up to far, far less than it thinks it does: La Bête is children’s theater for graduate students. But it’s the particular genius of director Matthew Warchus to take someone else’s B-minus paper (Boeing Boeing, even the overrated God of Carnage) and convert it into A-grade entertainment.
La Bête purports to depict a barbarian invasion: Meretricious trash and gooey sentiment, enabled by bad taste at the highest levels of society, are polluting the spic-and-span unities of true and proper art. The latter is personified in Elomire (whose name is not only an anagram for “Molière,” but the title character in a real-life satire, Elomire hypocondre, published by a rival courtier to attack the playwright not long before his death). If this sounds like almost too natural a role for Pierce, it is, yet he deploys his full range of patrician disgust and j’accuse gazes with such brilliance, it’s impossible to argue with the casting director. In the few silences Valere allows, you can just about hear the metallic chink of Elomire’s sphincter clinching. He’s got his reasons: His royal sponsor, the Princess Conti (Lumley, regal, frightening, very funny), has decreed that Valere, a busker whose street shows she’s enjoyed, join the royal troupe, in the hopes of loosening up Elomire. Valere quickly invades Elomire’s house and takes over. He’s a creature of nonstop wind, emanating from his northern and southern poles. Running short of words, he begins making them up, then deploys them as accepted language: Refudiate that, elites! He’s intoxicated with himself, and soon, we are, too. Rylance’s drunken-masterly performance fuses elements of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean and James Franco in Pineapple Express with more classic influences from Buster Keaton and Jack Lemmon — though honestly, all comparisons fall short. When Lumley drops by (in a heraldic hurricane of glitter) to see whether her pets are playing nice, Elomire believes he can expose Valere as a phony, a creature of total solipsism and a common purveyor of “selfish pseudo-art.” But exposing a hypocrite is harder than it seems (see Tartuffe, students) and often ends up backfiring. “Go elsewhere, ye who seek dishonesty!” Valere crows, shedding the righteous Beckian tears of a true vulgarian-martyr. “My life is truth, and truth my greatest passion!”
“Truth” comes up early and often in the play, as if to underline Hirson’s academic aims. But in the final stretch, when thesis and antithesis cry out for synthesis, Hirson denies it. (Instead, he introduces a character who speaks in monosyllables, a tiresome exercise. Her name’s Dorine, but you can psychically hear Hirson wanting to call her Phoneme.) We sense nothing postmodern in this non-choice of anti-resolution: Hirson is just ... finished. But long after he’s finished, he keeps rhyming and repeating himself: Elomire is formal, intransigent, and boring, Valere false, fatuous, and ruthlessly alive. (This, by the way, was not the original, unanagrammed Molière’s subject. A fiercely playful individualist — and no prig — he was suspicious of all pieties, artistic and social, and probably would’ve found Valere a fascinating grotesque, a marvelously flawed specimen of outsize humanity. He also seems to have enjoyed a well-executed dirty joke, almost as much as Warchus.) Hirson’s conflict, on the other hand, seems to emanate not from life but directly from the ivory tower, specifically (I suspect) from those airless intra-academic cultural-studies battles of the late eighties and early nineties. But what is Valere’s referent in the right-now? South Park? The self-declared Joan of Arcs of cable news? A mobbed Murakami exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum? Nothing seems to fit. That’s because Valere’s a straw-beast, Elomire a straw-prig, and La Bête a straw play: Not lucid enough to be middlebrow, even, but definitely muddled-brow. It’s to Warchus’s infinite credit that he can spin straw into gold.
(At the Music Box Theatre through February 13.)