At the opening night performance of “La Bete” on Oct. 14, director Matthew Warchus paid an extraordinary tribute to an unprepossessingly handsome, square-jawed man in jacket, tie and jeans. Turning to the festive crowd from the stage of the Music Box Theatre, he said, “For those of you who don’t know, this is the playwright, David Hirson.
“This play opened 20 years ago, in an amazing production whose life was unfairly cut short,” Warchus continued “I’m aware that we have been joined tonight by some of the people from the original,” he said, “and we dedicate this production to them -- and to this man.”
Recalling that gracious speech a few days later, Hirson said, “I actually had to take a walk down to the river to collect myself, before going to the party.”
“La Bete” has always inspired strong reaction. Composed in rhyming couplets, it concerns a high-toned playwright named Elomire whose patroness insists that he hire a mountebank -- Valere, the “monster” of the title -- for his classical troupe.
After Valere’s half-hour monologue -- a speech delivered, in the new staging, by Mark Rylance in a scatological caterwaul of hilarious vulgarity -- David Hyde Pierce’s Elomire grows resolute in his determination to block the appointment. This leads to a scintillating showdown with the patroness, played by Joanna Lumley, in which art is pitted against commercialism, edification against pandering, leading to an unexpectedly moving denouement.
Not So Funny
“The real surprise to me was that in the writing of the play, though the ambition was comic, there’s something about ‘La Bete’ which is quite tragic,” Hirson, 52, said in an interview at Bloomberg’s worldwide headquarters in Manhattan. “It takes the audience on a very unusual journey.”
Nevertheless, in 1991, “La Bete” failed to impress the New York Times’s then-chief drama critic, Frank Rich, and, despite an outpouring of support from other critics as well as artists from around the country, it closed after just 25 performances, several of which Warchus attended.
“The door had been left ajar a bit to explore some of the human dimensions of the play,” Hirson said. “Matthew said that while he admired the original production, if we were going to do this thing together, I needed to know that he would in no way replicate that production. His view of the play has a romantic poignancy. It was there in the original, but Matthew really went there.”
Educated at Oxford and Yale, Hirson said he’d spent years thinking about writing a comedy in the demanding form before the idea of “La Bete” finally came to him.
“The Moliere influence on the play, by and large it’s a red herring,” he said. “I loved the sound of alexandrines being spoken very rapidly, of French people enjoying their language at that clip and then roaring. There was a musical aspect to that that was very appealing to me.”
Such appreciation probably came naturally to the New York native, whose mother, Sally, is an actress and whose father, Roger O. Hirson, wrote the book for “Pippin,” an unlikely ‘70s Broadway smash about Charlemagne’s son.
“’La Bete’ was my first play,” David Hirson said. A number of producers expressed interest, but it was Stuart Ostrow who mounted it. Ostrow had produced “Pippin” but wasn’t aware of the father-son connection until David himself pointed it out.
It would be almost a decade before young Hirson returned to Broadway, where the reception for his “Wrong Mountain” was even chillier than the one for “La Bete.” Maybe it’s also ready for a transformative revival.
Hirson is currently working on an adaptation of Johann Strauss’s New Year’s Eve perennial, “Die Fledermaus,” to be staged by Jeremy Sams at the Metropolitan Opera. The “La Bete” revival was financed with a large reserve fund, according to co-producer Roger Berlind, in order to let the show find its audience.
“We are relying heavily on word of mouth to propel the box office,” a hopeful Berlind said. “We’re going to give it as much of a chance as we can.”
Hirson, who said he avoided reading the reviews of his play this time around, continues to be somewhat blithely undaunted by Broadway’s own challenging mix of art and commerce.
“I have written these two plays and they’ve both been done on Broadway,” he said, smiling slightly. “I believe I’m having a most peculiar experience as a playwright, wouldn’t you say?”
(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)