Theater review: LA BETE

December 11, 2010

I dragged my heels about seeing the Broadway revival of David Hirson’s La Bete because I’d seen the original production, a valiant and smart but short-lived production, and felt like I’d already checked it off the list. I knew people were raving about Mark Rylance’s performance in the central role, and I know he’s a fine actor (above left, with David Hyde Pierce), but I saw him last year in Boeing Boeing and just thought the show was stupid and his performance overrated. Nevertheless, reading John Lahr’s review in the New Yorker inspired me to understand the contemporary political significance of the play, so I arranged to see it, and I’m glad I did. It is indeed a smart and provocative play about culture today, but it’s also a ripping good show. You can read my CultureVulture review online here.

5 Responses to “Theater review: LA BETE”

  1. Steve V. Says:

    Your insightful review, Don, begs the question, why isn’t this play more popular with the New York public? (I’ve read the play, not seen it on stage.) I realize rhymed verse plays aren’t what Broadway audiences are used to, but this production has all the earmarks of a “snob appeal” success, which Broadway comes up with on the average of once a year. To wit:

    1)It’s got a British pedigree. True the play, by virtue of its initial production, and the playwright are American but this production, the director and 2/3 of the stars are Brits; and I gather it was a hit in the West End before coming over here. Usually, that’s a giant plus factor with New York playgoers.

    2)It deals in an entertaining way with Big Ideas. Didn’t The History Boys and, especially, The Coast of Utopia do very nicely with audiences, despite equally or more challenging material?

    3) It got some great reviews, most especially for its British stars. Rylance got a Tony last time out, and Lumely is an Ab/Fab idol.
    Plus, everybody loves Niles Crane, I mean, David Hyde Pierce, another Tony winner.

    So what went wrong, in your opinion, at the box office? This production was not a financial fiasco, like the first version (which admittedly had a star-studded list of admirers), but its run is quite a bit shorter, or more “limited”, than originally announced.

    Based only on a reading of the text, I’d say the problem is that the premise is more appealing than the execution, the versification could be a bit “wearing” on the ear, unless properly delivered, and the “high artvs. low art” contrast is not as cogently dramatised as it ought to be in order to gain the audience’s interest and admiration.

    Some of the conceits, e.g. the serving girl who speaks in monosyllables and must resort to pantomime to express herself, thereby forcing the others to guess at her meaning, are tedious enough on the page, and I can only imagine that it would take a brilliant production to make them work on stage, which perhaps wasn’t the case here.

    But, in the end, why isn’t La Bête a “snob hit”? The kind people feel they MUST see, in order to be able to discuss it over brunch
    and during cocktail and diner parties with their more sophisticated friends. I’m sure that’s what the producers were counting on. So what went wrong?

    • dshewey Says:

      It’s funny, Steve — I’m actually surprised that the play has run as long as it has. This kind of play is always iffy on Broadway, where the ticket prices are so astronomical. Shakespeare can play on Broadway only when there’s a gigantic star attached, like Al Pacino in Merchant of Venice (which happens to be an excellent production). Mark Rylance is very good but not nearly famous enough to draw people, and Joanna Lumley is a) not that big a star and b) doesn’t have that big a role. Meanwhile, Jane Fonda in a not-very-good play, “33 Variations,” played out its run on Broadway but to lots of empty seats. I wouldn’t say anything went wrong with this production — it’s spectacularly well-produced, and I think it’s probably done as well as anybody could expect. It’s a play that does depend on word-of-mouth, and the word-of-mouth has been consistently good.

  2. Steve V. Says:

    Thanks for your response, Don, as thoughtful as always. I’m still puzzled, however, that another British import, The History Boys,recently did so well on Broadway, whereas La Bête has done much less well, at least at the box office.
    If you recall, The History Boys also had no stars, at least on the order of a Jane Fonda or an Al Pacino. It, too, dealt with Big Ideas, and in a context (a British history class whose all-male pupils are being prepped for Oxford and Cambridge) almost as unfamiliar to American audiences as a patrician salon.
    Given that, as you say, La Bête has had good-word-of-mouth, plus good-to-excellent reviews, and that it had the makings, potentially, of what I call a “snob hit” (which can be a commercial success, as well as a critical one), I wonder why La Bête has turned out to be a commercial disappointment, whereas The History Boys was a triumph.
    I’m almost tempted to say that the fact that the title is in French turned off or scared off a portion of the playgoing public.
    Or am I perhaps overlooking some other factor?

    • dshewey Says:

      It’s funny, Steve — even just since you and I began having this dialogue on my blog, several people I know have mentioned going to see the play and liking it. Which tells me that, in some way, it has become some version of what you call a “snob hit,” or a show that smart people are considering something not to miss.

  3. Steve V. Says:

    I promise that this will be my last word on the subject, Don, before we give La Bête a well-deserved rest.
    This seems to me to be a perfect example of a play which could be called “un succès d’estime,” or in my vernacular translation, “a snob hit.” (Of course, I’m sure you know how George F. Kaufman translated that Frnch expression: “a success that runs out of steam.”)
    Still, I suspect your review helped to put a few more bottoms on the seats of the Music Box Theater than would otherwise have found their way there.

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