It happens all the time: Everything seems to be pumping along in an organization, and then some boob with bad ideas comes in and it’s all over. But I’ll bet it never happens in quite the same bizarre style as in “La Bête,” David Hirson’s play that’s getting a thought-provoking run from Arden Theatre Company.
“La Bête” (French for the beast) is two plays in one – a comedy about an industrial-strength megalomaniac that also becomes a second-act drama about the vulgar versus the sublime, or standards versus anything-goes, or the general meaning of values. That’s a heavy weight for a comedy to bear and, in fact, “La Bête” has never borne it well. It’s an undervalued play because as a comedy, it doesn’t follow through and as a thoughtful discourse, you never see it coming, so it mugs you late in the game. But in the end, “La Bête” is rich with ideas and cannot be dismissed.
Four years ago in a Broadway revival, its comedic elements came to the fore. When I saw Emmanuelle Delpech’s somewhat more staid production at the Arden just after it opened Wednesday, the play’s serious second-act arguments mattered most of all — despite the raucous and masterly comic performance by Philadelphia-based actor Scott Greer in the title role of the beast. He plays an execrable fop who works as a street performer and has caught the eye of a French prince in 1654. (Rosemarie E. McKelvey designed the stylish period costumes.)
The prince (Dito van Riegersberg) is also the major patron of a theater troupe, and he’s issued a writ that the street performer be admitted as one of the players. The very idea drives the troupe’s leader (the excellent Ian Merrill Peakes) into brick-walled resistance; the man he’s been told to accept is among other things, an impulsive blatherer whose digressions and aggressions smother anyone else in the room. Greer plays this monster with great force and style – the character’s first-act dialogue runs probably more than a half hour and takes up at least 80 percent of the act. It calls for a tour-de-force, and Greer provides one, surely, coming on more like a tornado that eventually sweeps through the room than an avalanche that overtakes it instantly, as the part was played on Broadway by Mark Rylance.
That difference in style, though, supports the notion that Delpech may want us to take away from the production: This is not so much about a beast as about the triumph of a beastly influence on the general culture.
Hirson gives his play a classic 17th-century feel by writing it in iambic pentameter, and its unchanging rhythm has a sameness when you hear it no matter how clever the rhymes. (Even a character in the play mocks the style: “Pentameter, while pleasing on the page, is so monotonous upon the stage.”) That said, the cast – including dependably high-level Philly actors James Ijames, Michael Doherty, Alex Keiper, Amanda Schoonover and Alex Bechtel – handles the stanzas admirably as their characters move in and out of James Kronzer’s handsome long-walled set, presumably in the royal court.
“La Bête” runs through Oct. 12 at Arden Theater Company, on Second Street, just north of Market Street. 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.