Oct 25, 2010

Let Down and Hanging Around

I can pinpoint almost exactly where La Bete went off the rails for me, down to the line. The current Broadway revival, duly praised for its performances and the sharp, bright direction of Matthew Warchus, was my first acqaintance with the play, and having StageGraded the mixed reviews, I was prepared to be underwhelmed, or worse. On the contrary, I found myself enchanted and intrigued, and not only by the legend-in-the-making opening marathon monologue by Mark Rylance as the title boor; I felt for almost the play's entire running time that playwright David Hirson was brilliantly rehearsing a subtle and multilayered argument between high and low, vulgarian and snob, theatrical immediacy and literary distance, in the conflict between the emptyheaded but full-throated clown Valere (Rylance) and the dyspeptic aesthete Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), with a suitably majestic patron (Joanna Lumley) as a crucial catalyst and pivot point.

I was with the play even up through the performance of Valere's lame anti-vanity allegory "The Parable of Two Boys From Cadiz," and I was especially taken with the moments following it, in which the Princess seems finally to have seen through the charlatan, and Elomire, sensing that she's come around, takes the opportunity to speak frankly, letting loose an impressively nuanced jeremiad against his rival's pretensions:
Decrying France's vulgar predilection
For cheap and undistinguished works of art,
His play, ironically, is from the start
As bad as any work that it decries!
This bleak phenomenon itself implies
A danger to our nation more malign
Than so-called facts of cultural decline!
It represents a much more lethal trend:
The language used by artists to defend
Against the rule of mediocrity
Has been appropriated to a 'T'
By just those mediocrities who rule!
It's dangerous to be governed by a fool,
But worse when fools bemoan the sad decline
Of standards which their efforts undermine!
To mourn decaying values in a play
Which only reinforces the decay
Devalues the idea that it expresses!
This amounts to a more complicated thesis than I'd seen critics discern in the play--I can't count how many claimed that Hirson's play deplores our culture's preference for senseless vulgarians, and that that urgent message has become "even more relevant today" (two extremely wearying tropes, the first being precisely the kind of elitism well-read blue-state theater folks are frequently accused of, and the second an encomium I've been tired of since I first heard it applied to every significant revival of a bona fide classic since, I don't know, roughly the Reagan Administration).

Unfortunately, those critics turn out to be largely correct: The Princess responds to Elomire's tirade by chiding him for not seeing the entertainment value of Valere's work. Though we never get to see Elomire's work to compare, this judgment makes the Princess look a blind fool, since the "Cadiz" play is pretty pallid stuff, neither very good on its own merits or so-bad-it's-good fun. Elomire concludes the play vowing to continue his lonely quest for artistic excellence--in all, an extremely disappointing ending to what seemed until just a few minutes before a rich verbal fugue on taste, talent, and meaning.

And while I'm expressing disappointment with Broadway shows, I have to say that one reason Elomire's speech hit me so strongly is that it's a nearly perfect description of my feelings about Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which entertained me more or less in the way decent sketch comedy or a middling episode of South Park might, but left me glaringly aware of the many things it is not: especially funny, apt, uniquely insightful. As a contribution to the never-quite-right genre of the Broadway "rock musical," it mainly made me appreciate Passing Strange--a show I liked and admired more than outright loved--all the more.

BBAJ has its inspired moments, no question, and I think there's a smart idea operating behind its coarse playfulness--the one you've read about, about how American exceptionalism feeds American ignorance and self-involvement. I just think a show that demands our attention as brashly as this one does should have more than one idea.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Quite right about "La Bete" but perhaps asking too much from a play that has so many brilliant moments and a performance by Mark Rylance that anyone who cares about acting must see. He's even better in "Jerusalem" in a totally different part, as American audiences will appreciate if it makes it to Broadway.

The mess about Andrew Jackson played a year or more ago in Los Angeles. Admittedly, plays can be improved, but it's hard to imagine that anything worth seeing could emerge from the dopey version we saw here.