david hyde pierce la bete Broadway's 'La Bete' offers up foppish fun without intermissionNo one does long-suffering better than David Hyde Pierce.

]]>“La Bete,”
set in 17th century France, he is Elomire, a serious playwright and
scholar, forced to suffer the indignity of working with a buffoon.

Pierce is a riot when beleaguered, as he repeatedly proved as Niles on “Frasier.” To see him in this, go soon: The Broadway show closes Jan. 9.

That buffoon, Valere, is played by Mark Rylance
in a stunning performance. Valere enters and then talks — in couplets
— for close to a half hour. Just given the bizarre fake teeth he’s
talking through, this is a feat. But to deliver these lines without a
pause is a triumph.

Along the way, he spits food, emits nasty
odors, uses a chamber pot and belches; he’s an all-around ill-mannered
slob. He is also very funny in a low-art, broad way. But just how low
art can a play be when the actors speak in couplets?

Low versus
high art is at the heart of the play. Elomire, an anagram of Moliere, is
in the royal court and writes and acts in plays with a troupe. The
princess (Joanna Lumley, “Absolutely Fabulous”) finds Valere amusing.

He’s
the first to tell you how smart he is. Valere mangles Latin, misquotes
people, tries to make esoteric remarks but can’t. He is that person who
thinks he is far smarter than he really is.

The two men who make up most of the play, recent Tony winners Pierce (“Curtains”) and Rylance (“Boeing-Boeing”), are terrific. That, however, does not make it a perfect play.

There’s a truly odd character in Doreen (Greta Lee),
a maid who speaks only in words that rhyme with blue. This gets old
fast. Plus, she is far more modern than the rest of the cast.

Lumley,
with perfect comic timing and so outrageously regal she could be a drag
queen, makes her entrance in a wind-blown cloud of glittery stars.

The show, at one hour and 10 minutes, needs an intermission. Judging by a few others this season (like “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “A Life in the Theater”), intermissions are no longer standard, but are often necessary.

As
well-written and brilliantly acted as it is, “La Bete” requires some
work on the part of the audience. We neither speak nor think in couplets
(well, at least most of us don’t), and for audiences to take in the
jokes and follow, it’s not a bad thing to give them a bit of a break.