Having admired John Lahr more than any theatre critic since Kenneth Tynan, reading his hat-in-the-air, excitedly laudatory review of 'La Bete', I could not wait to get to the Music Box theatre. To begin with, Mr. Lahr and I share a piece of affectionate history, both of us having had an association with E.Y. Harburg, one of the great American wordsmiths, (lyrics to 'Finian's Rainbow' and 'The Wizard of Oz,' in which his father, Bert Lahr played the Cowardly Lion, and the young Lahr had readied a book of Yip's(as he was known) wonderful words which, sadly, never saw the light(s) due to an unfortunate legal wrangle, and I, as a young would-be songwriter had been nurtured under Yip's encouraging, inspiring wing,) and, secondly, the prose in which John Lahr wraps his opinions is, in itself, artful. So it was with my eyes and my ears and my heart all at the attentive anticipatory max I went to the Sunday performance, imagining, what with the critic's praise, it would serve as a spiritual observation, my church being English, the language, not the religion. In addition, I had been enchanted by Mark Rylance, the leading actor as Valere, in 'La Bete', when he played the baffled centerpiece of the farce Boeing, Boeing, not to mention his other credits as producer, Shakespearean player, writer and obvious man of many parts.
I wished that one of them had not been Valere. This Moliere manque, this grossly non-preening cockatoo who burps and farts his hour upon the stage and then, God help us, is heard some more, is clearly one of the great tour-de-farce roles of my lifetime. But to what end? -- other than the toilet he actually sits on onstage, expelling what gas doesn't come from his mouth, using the paper torn from nearby obviously precious books to wipe himself. All clearly intended to be repellent, and, sadly, achieving its aim, in what seemed-- as it was meant to be -- an endless barrage of persiflage, bad poetry, and egotism, in which I, like the character played with immaculate restraint by David Hyde Pierce, cringed and prayed for flight.
Valere is meant to be a street player lifted to societal acclaim by a deluded royal (Joanna Lumley,) who mistakes his endless persiflage for true poetry, and makes him the writer de jour, entertained and adored by high society. (The best scene, visually, and probably because of its lack of words, is the feast that preceeds the encounter between Valere and Elomire, where a line of gorgeously costumed players or ghosts, one could not tell for sure, sit at a festive board bathed in luscious light and grapes, setting the period with ingenious grace.)
Then begins the onslaught, in verse, no doubt brilliantly conceived and bravely executed by the author of the piece, David Hirson. But the endless flow of meaninglessness, the unimpeded cascade of emptiness that at first paralyzes Elomire and, not long after, various members of the audience, including me, serves only to make one pray for a better play for Mr. Rylance, emancipation for Mr. Pierce, and a quick exit for those trapped in the theater. The ultimate effect of endless palaver by a bore cannot help but be boring, and the fact that Rylance so deftly communicates the boorish makes his character clearly a boor.
Ms. Lumley, well-known among Brits (and those who watch BBC comedies) is as charming as she can possibly be, being so deluded, portraying the Princess who found this popinjay. Preceeded as her entrance is by a wash of golden sparkle, is residue pops up from time to time during the rest of the play lending the rest of it unexpected darts of light. One wishes one could say the same about the play.
Alas, poor Rylance. I knew him (I thought) well. A fellow of infinite jest. But clearly one who wants to work, regardless.