There's really no getting around it: I'm all about the musicals. I'm sure that doesn't come as a surprise to my regular readers. But that doesn't mean I don't make occasional forays into so-called "straight" plays.
Such forays are especially rewarding when the plays in question are well nigh on musicals themselves (e.g Amadeus, Master Class). Or when the shows feature such a heightened reality and/or a slick presentation that they feel as though they could be musicals (e.g. M. Butterfly, The Lion in Winter). Which is why, although there are certainly quite a few intriguing new musicals coming to New York this season, I have sacrificed a few of my precious show slots to a few non-tuners during my recent trips to New York.
Cases in point: La Bête and Brief Encounter. I saw the former a few weeks back, and the latter this past Wednesday. And both shows represented that larger-than-life theatricality that musicals supply. As we'll see, though, only one of these productions genuinely works, at least in terms of providing an overall satisfying theatrical experience.
Some background: I first saw La Bête in Boston in 1991, during its out-of-town tryout at the Wilbur Theater. The show wasn't selling very well, so the producers were papering the house, and a friend had scored a couple of seats. The play was originally supposed to feature the late Ron Silver in the central part of Valere, but those mythic "creative differences" came a cropper, and understudy Tom McGowan took over the part.
Even then, at (ahem) a rather tender age, I knew that there was something missing from the play. As you may know, playwright David Hirson intended La Bête to be an homage to Molière. (The name of the other major male character, Elomire, is even an anagram of Molière's name.) As such, the play is written entirely in heroic couplets: that is, continuous sets of two rhymed lines in iambic pentameter. The problem is, once you get beyond the novelty of the rhymed couplets, the play doesn't really have much to say. Oh, sure, there's the whole theme of popular entertainment versus artistic ambition. But other that "low art bad, high art good," there really doesn't appear to much else on Hirson's mind here.
In fact, the show ironically falls victim to what it purports to decry. The famous opening monologue by the Valere character (here played by the phenomenally talented Mark Rylance), in which the boorish lout Valere expatiates for some 20 full pages in the script, amounts to a shameless appeal to the peculiar modern mania for that which is bigger, longer, higher, lower, larger, louder, etc. The feat is impressive, but is it really any different from your typical "American Idol" showboating? Our the thankfully fading preoccupation with enormous, characterless surburban homes (AKA "starter castles")?
That's not to say that this production of La Bête is lacking in charms. Far from it. Rylance alone is well worth the ticket price. Rylance deservedly won the Best Actor Tony a few years back for his masterful performance in Boeing-Boeing, directed there as he is here by wunderkind Matthew Warchus. As an inveterate fan of "Absolutely Fabulous", I was of course thrilled to see Joanna Lumley live on stage again. (I saw her in London in an otherwise forgettable revival of The Letter.) And David Hyde Pierce does his best as Elomire, in an admittedly lackluster role. But the few delights La Bête has to offer come primarily in the person of Mr. Rylance.
Far more successful as an overall theatrical experience is the Roundabout Theatre production of Brief Encounter, now playing at Studio 54. Director Emma Rice has adapted Noël Coward's screenplay with an eye toward the whimsical, but without ever losing track of the inherent beauty and heartache of Coward's simple but compelling story. The plot features a fleeting love affair between a married woman and a married man. The story also features two romantic subplots that provide alternately flirtatious and lusty counterpoints to the doomed central affair.
The show features that self-same heightened reality that I mentioned above, including song, dance, video projections, environmental staging, and even the occasional semi-acrobatic interlude. Particularly enjoyable for me were the interpolations of little- and well-known Noël Coward songs, such as "Mad About the Boy" and "A Room With a View." The result is a thoroughly theatrical experience in a similar vein to The 39 Steps, but with a far more serious and heartfelt tone.
One of the primary joys of Brief Encounter lies in its charming and sprightly cast, particularly Hannah Yelland, who is just sensational as the central female lover, Laura. Yelland makes every line both intense and credible, with a presence that more than fills the cavernous Studio 54. Also excellent was Tristan Sturrock as her extramarital paramour. Of the strong supporting cast, the most notable were Annette McLaughlin as Myrtle, the local restaurant proprietor, and the wonderfully versatile Joseph Alessi in the dual roles of Laura's husband and Myrtle's boy toy.
I must admit that I sometimes found my attention wandering during Brief Encounter, but eventually I chalked this up to a deliberate choice on Emma Rice's part to give the show a languorous pace. Rice isn't in any particular hurry, and is often content to linger over such revealing detail as watching the central couple slowly dress after they have dried their clothes subsequent to a minor boating incident. For me, Brief Encounter reveals much of what is missing from La Bête: mostly heart, and a depth of human feeling. La Bête is ultimately about facile ideas and low comedy. Brief Encounter is about nothing less than finding whatever happiness you can.