As a birthday / New Years' gift, my mother gave me and the missus tickets to La Bête on Broadway. It's a great staging of what I feel is a mediocre piece of work.
The original performance of La Bête on Broadway closed after 25 performances, allegedly killed by a scathing review by Frank Rich of the Times. It went on to run successfully in London, and now it's been resurrected for another Broadway run. The show sports a wonderful cast (especially Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce) making good on an inspired presentation.
But it's clear why it tanked the first time: it's just not a very good play. It sets up one basic dramatic note and then pounds on it for two hours under the audience is tone-deaf, although they're typically laughing too hard to notice. That is, until they're waiting for the car to be brought around, at which point a kind of wit of the staircase (or maybe, in this case, wit of the parking garage) beings to assert itself, and they realize they've been had. The fact that the whole thing is delivered in rhyming couplets a la Moliere is clever, but it's a first-time cleverness: once you've gotten that giftwrapping out of the way, there's not much else in the package.
Most everyone who's seen the play has nothing but great things to say about the first part, wherein the self-congratulatory blowhard Valere (Rylance) delivers a near half-hour monologue, a love letter to his own genius, in between trips to the bathroom, bouts of gas and globs of spittle. When it's actually happening in front of you, as opposed to just being read on the page, it's uproarious. But then comes the second act, where we realize there's no actual drama — just Elomire (Pierce) standing his ground against Valere, grinding his teeth and exhibiting the intellectual's version of the same pigheaded blowhardyness as his alleged nemesis. Elomire, by the way, gets short shrift throughout, which suggests more than a little stacking of the deck; we never even get to see any of his work performed, only distantly alluded to. The whole play ends in a gloom that's so sudden and dismaying that I kept expecting the curtain to fly back up again. No dice.
My biggest problem with the play is simple: neither Valere nor Elomire get a chance to do much of anything other than stake out their positions, assert an attitude, and refuse to budge an inch. There's no dynamism, no transformation. It's like watching two cars smash into each other, then burn and leak oil at the side of the road for hours on end. The play-within-the play in Act II ought to have afforded them opportunities to, say, discover they have more in common than they think (they both take themselves too seriously; they both want to reach people; they're both in love with language, etc.), but nothing comes of it. You'd think that with all the time they took to put together those rhyming couplets, they could also have given us a story worth sticking with for two hours.
A final note. I loved the cast and their performances, but I felt rather bad for Greta Lee — she who was stuck in the thankless role of a maidservant who's "going through an adolescent phase" where she only speaks in words that rhyme with "blue" and furiously pantomimes to get her meanings across. Lee herself is wildly funny in that role, but it only made me lament all the more the play itself. She, and we, deserve better. Will someone please give her a worthy role when this show closes in Feburary? (And everyone else in the cast, too.)