Pity the Fool

la bete 1 Pity the Fool Pity Mark Rylance. The poor guy is giving a brilliant performance eight times a week at the Music Box, where he opened in the otherwise not-so-brilliant La Bête last week. The French term means the beast, but also a fool, an idiot, and Mr. Rylance plays the titular fool, creating a compulsively watchable, utterly compellingly idiot. And he spends the first 40 minutes of the play delivering what is essentially a comedic monologue. By all rights, it should be the tour-de-force performance of the season.

Except that this season–this month, even–there’s Scott Shepherd down at the Public Theater, playing Nick Carraway in Gatz, and his tour de force–he reads more or less the entirety of The Great Gatsby, and he does his best work in the final act–goes on for eight hours.

Mr. Shepard also has the advantage of being in a much more interesting piece of theater.

La Bête, written by David Hirson, opened and closed in three weeks when it first came to Broadway, in 1991. It’s set in 17th-century France, written in verse and is an extended metaphor for low, populist entertainment–represented by Mr. Rylance’s Valere, a long-winded, self-involved, flatulent nincompoop of a playwright, who has somehow caught the eye of the local princess–overtaking high art, as personified by Elomire (played by David Hyde Pierce, who long ago mastered the restrained fury of the put-upon), the refined writer, manager and star of the troupe, who has heretofore had royal favor.

The play, directed here by Matthew Warchus–who last season brought us both God of Carnage and The Norman Conquests and the season before revived Boeing-Boeing, for which Mr. Rylance won the Tony–opens with the quick view of a dinner party and then follows Elomire and his loyal aide, Bejarte (Stephen Ouimette), as they retire to the library to discuss their unwelcome guest. Valere then makes his entrance, miraculously

living up to the hyperbolically hideous image Elomire and Bejarte have described, spewing both hot air, metaphorical and literal, and food–it’s remarkable how much Mr. Rylance is able to keep spitting, and how long into the scene.

After Valere finishes his near-monologue–he has kept going even as Elomire walks offstage briefly during it, to bang his head against a wall, and even as he heeds the call of nature–Elomire tries to put him in his place, but the misguided interloper hears the criticisms only as constructive. Finally, the princess (Joanna Lumley, wonderfully regal and funny) arrives, preceded by sparkles and fanfare, and sets up the face-off: Elmoire’s troupe will perform one of Valere’s plays, to see if they can work together. They do; she decides they can; and Elomire is left defeated, his troupe gone off with Valere, to stay in the princess’ good graces. “We’re measured by the choices that we make,” he says at the end, and only the monosyllabic maid (Greta Lee, who manages to be comic relief in what was already a comedy) has chosen him.

The play’s problem is that there’s no reason why anyone would choose Valere. Lowbrow entertainments that succeed typically have the virtue of being entertaining–Snooki isn’t just trashy; she’s also hilarious–but both Valere and his play simply aren’t. It’s clear that the princess has decided she likes him and his work, but it’s never clear why.

And that points to another stumbling block: No matter how well acted–and this play is very well acted–it’s not so much fun to spend two hours with an unbearable bore.

 

THE LANGUAGE ARCHIVE–about George, a man who studies dying languages but can’t muster the words to save his dying marriage, and Mary, his very sad soon-to-be-ex-wife–faces a more pronounced version of the same problem: Some excellent acting improves but can’t save a pleasant but confused play, which opened Sunday night at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Off Broadway space, the Laura Pels Theatre.

Jayne Houdyshell is the attraction here, and she’s fantastic, playing several roles but most primarily Alta, half of the counterpoint married couple, the intensely verbal, constantly squabbling, deeply in love final speakers of a fictional, nonspecifically Mitteleuropean language. (She’s also an wise, impassioned Esperanto instructor.) John Horton, also excellent, plays her husband, Resten (and also a wise, suicidal baker), and the two have an honest, easy rapport.

Julia Cho’s play alternates between George’s personal life, in which his sad wife leaves him, and his professional one, in which his assistant is in love with him, and Alta and Reston bicker. Mark Brokaw’s direction is smooth and sure, and Neil Patel’s set is lovely and versatile. But the play itself is unbalanced: Alta and Resten’s scenes come alive; George and Mary’s don’t. And the various subplots and wise elders–L.L. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, is the wisest of them–shade from cute into contrivance.

There are echoes of Sarah Ruhl’s work in The Language Archive–the focus on emotional connection and distance, that mix of realism and whimsy–and it won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for female playwrights, which Ms. Ruhl won earlier this decade. But Ms. Cho, unlike Ms. Ruhl, can’t yet find the right mix to make her play work.

I won’t try to fairly review Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which opened last week at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre after a sold-out, thrice-extended run at the Public earlier this year; I’ve been friends for years with its co-creator, the composer Michael Friedman. But I will unfairly tell you that it’s fantastic, inventive, urgent, funny and relevant–and every bit as good as Ben Brantley keeps saying it is.

joxfeld@observer.com