`La B^ete:' A Punchy, Showy Charade

La B^ete Comedy by David Hirson. Directed by Richard Jones. At the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

EVERYTHING about ``La B^ete'' is ludicrously awry, from the megalomania of the central character to the skewed perspectives of Richard Hudson's tilted set. In his professional theater debut, playwright David Hirson has created a mock classic satire in rhymed couplets with heavy farcical trimmings. The scene is France in 1654 in the reign of Louis XIV and the time of Moli`ere. (The character of Elomire is an acronym for Moli`ere and a token of Mr. Hirson's debt to the master.)

The central character is a blockhead with delusions of artistic grandeur. Act I consists primarily of a monologue in which the insufferable Valere (Tom McGowan) proclaims his genius to the understandably appalled Elomire (Michael Cumpsty) and Bejart (James Greene). Mr. McGowan, the understudy who replaced Ron Silver in the course of the show's Boston tryout, rises to the occasion with a bravura performance of the clown. His physical comedy is wonderfully inventive.

Following a long, first-act windup, ``La B^ete'' gets down to the business of its slight plot. In response to a performance of his worthless chef d'oeuvre, Valere is invited by Prince Conti (Dylan Baker) to head his troupe of players. Elomire can either join the troupe or seek patronage elsewhere. The play ends with Elomire's bitter reflection on the plight of the artist in a philistine society, a denunciation not without latter-day relevancy.

Under British director Richard Jones, the company achieves the panache the showy charade demands. Besides Messrs. McGowan and Cumpsty as the contesting impresarios, the excellent cast includes Johann Carlo as a ditsy maid, Patricia Kilgarriff as Madeleine Bejart, and John Michael Higgins and Holly Felton as the De Bries. The sets, super-lighted by Jennifer Tipton, heighten the play's comic vision and help explain the costliness of the production. They include a chandelier worthy of ``The Phantom of the Opera.''

With its various structural oddities, ``La B^ete'' can perhaps be fairly described as a quirky tour de force.

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