Occasionally, the weight of various expectations become a burden that no show should have to shoulder. I saw the original production of La Bête when it opened on Broadway almost twenty years ago. It was rumored to be in deep trouble as the notoriously fickle actor, Ron Silver, left the production on the road and was replaced by his understudy, an unknown Tom McGowan. Arriving with diminishing anticipation, I discovered a comic whirlwind of high style – told in rhyming couplets no less. La Bête tells the story of Elomire – a clever anagram of Moliere, by the way – a 17th century French playwright, and his touring acting troupe. Due to the patronage of the capricious Prince of Conti they’ve come to lead and enjoy the artistic high life. Yet when Valere, a swaggering braggart with delusions of artistic grandeur, becomes the Prince’s choice to join Elomire’s troupe, sparks fly. As the two face off, a comic battle of wits and witticisms reveals a biting commentary on the nature of art and the artist in society. This was my kind of play: on one level it functioned as an entertainment and on another it engaged the brain and engendered discussion. Of course it failed miserably, no thanks to the lack of a bankable star.
Flash forward a generation and La Bête returns to Broadway at The Music Box, following an engagement in London with every producer’s favorite impulse: stars. Having suffered through the Bush years and the rise of the Tea Party, author David Hirson’s sanguine assessment that the stupid shall ultimately inherit the earth is no less biting than it was coming at the end of twelve years of Reagan/Bush. What is striking in this production, however, is the lack of balance. Mark Rylance is a comic wet dream as Valere. He enters the play with a 30-minute monologue of such physical and verbal dexterity that it makes me want to watch him read the phone book one day. Joanna Lumley – or as I like to call her, Patsy!! – embodies the now-Princess of Conti with an understated, idiosyncratic hauteur that stirs the pot quite nicely. My issue is with David Hyde Pierce as the put-upon playwright, Elomire. He’s quite simply out of his league. Reaching into a bag of well-worn TV tricks he mugs his way across the stage to the point of inverting the play’s sympathies: we root for the idiot because at least he makes us laugh and can’t wait for the banishment of the prissy, insufferable playwright who doth protest too much. Ironic, isn’t it?
At the opposite end of the shifting scale of expectations, I found myself two nights later at Primary Stages for the opening of In Transit, a musical I knew nothing about, written by a group of people I’d never heard of. Inspired by the rhythms and sounds of life on the subway, the show follows an aspiring actress, a fledgling financier, a street-savvy beatboxer, a cab driver, and a few others as they intersect underground, trying to find their way in New York City. The result is a charming tapestry of characters and a fresh take on the a cappella musical: every note, every sound is created by what has to be one of the hardest working ensembles in town. That they make it seem so effortless only adds to the production’s appeal. Of course, it helps that I walked into the theater without a shred of expectation. Next time I hear something’s been written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, I won’t be able to say that.