The world of La Bete, costumes aside, could double for our own. David Hirson's rhyming play, now at the Music Box, is set in 17th-century France, but the message resonates: The barbarians are at the gates -- and the powerful are welcoming them. There is much to enjoy, including Mark Rylance's tour de force rendition of Valere, a vulgar boob who never shuts up, and spot-on performances from the Princess (a wonderfully haughty Joanna Lumley) and elder arts statesman Elomire (David Hyde Pierce).
La Bete selects an acting troupe as its focal point; but any arena that pits quality against mediocrity is an able substitute.
When the Princess inflicts Valere on Elomire, the court's highbrow playwright, she embraces low culture -- and its attendant dangers. La Bete, performed without an intermission, is a monologist's dream. There are some terrific speeches by Elomire and crazed, stream-of-consciousness ramblings by Valere. "La Bete" is French for "beast," and Valere fulfills that definition to the letter. He's a genuine threat to Elomire and his acting troupe. To prove it, Elomire has Valere stage his play for the princess, praying she'll wise up.
First performed in 1991, with a dazzlingly white-and-black skewed set, La Bete's current incarnation is in a towering library. The ideas may be lofty, but the reality is disquieting: Populist culture is trumpeted; art is being defiled. Masterpiece Theater's producers must experience similar feelings when taunted with reality TV ratings. And it explains the more dubious movies-turned-musicals trend on Broadway.
Director Matthew Warchus, who favors chamber pieces (he was last on Broadway with God of Carnage, Boeing-Boeing and Norman Conquests), gets sharp, calibrated performances from all his actors, including the supporting players. Little wonder that Elomire's maid is nearly mute; grotesque corruption can leave one speechless.
By contrast, David Mamet has much to say about the practical aspects of theater in his aptly named A Life in the Theater, currently at the Schoenfeld. Where La Bete salutes the purity of the turf, Mamet addresses more practical concerns: the actor's life. Two actors (Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight) are featured in a series of vignettes; all underscore the singularity of the calling.
Director Neil Pepe keeps a measured pace, as the duo navigate the behind-the-scenes world of the theater. Mamet doesn't miss a beat, citing the envy, vulnerability, affection and resentment that comprise an actor's life. The economical prose is vintage Mamet; in a few sentences or a terse reply, he can showcase loneliness and rivalry. He's equally adept at presenting the inevitable production snafus -- which are hilarious -- and sending up theatrical pretensions.
This valentine to actors is an affectionate portrayal of an older actor's love affair with the stage. And thanks to Stewart's plumy voice and dramatic personae, even a casual remark or gesture has import. Knight's role, as a young actor with an eye on a film, is decidedly less romantic. Such differences make their dressing-room scenes click. The chemistry between them is fantastic. A Life in the Theater is a funny, heartfelt and fitting salute to a magical profession.
For performances of a different stripe, check out Lady Rizo and the Assettes. Billed as "caberlesque" artists, the five-person troupe combines burlesque's risqué fare with sultry cabaret tones. Rizo and her Assettes belt out interpretations of classic scorchers and pop tunes alike. Their dress code is slinky, the language is brazen and the show memorable. It's not every Web site that welcomes its fans with: "Lady Rizo loves you. The Assettes wanna spank you!" This round, they take their fishnets and heels to the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea Oct. 30 for a pre-Halloween evening of bawdy bravado -- a bit of strip tease and decadent glamour. These quints are naughty and nice.