BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
SARASOTA — The centerpiece of La Bete (The Beast) is a jaw-dropping tour de force in Act 1: a comic monologue of some 400 lines delivered by the beast of the title, a street performer known as Valere. Played by Danny Scheie in a yellow jacket and pink sneakers, he's a fraudulent babbler in love with the sound of his own voice, and woe to anyone who tries to get a word in edgewise.
"These epigrams . . . they come to me as dew/Collects upon a budding daffodil,'' he waxes poetically.
Valere's 25-minute maniacal marathon is written in verse, as is all of the play by David Hirson, and it was amusing to keep track of some of the rhymes during the opening performance last Friday at the Asolo Repertory Theatre. Hirson's versifying includes "rapt'' and "slapped,'' "colossal'' and "fossil,'' "goo'' and "you'' and countless more.
La Bete, which premiered in 1991, is a sendup of one of Moliere's 17th century comedies of manners, though director Michael Donald Edwards has put the actors in modern dress. Erik Flatmo's imposing set has green steps, large double doors in a rococo frame, clear plastic furniture and pop art portraits of Shakespeare and Moliere.
Valere's foil is Elomire (an anagram of Moliere), a witty theater manager played by Bryan Torfeh.
The idea is that Valere and Elomire represent the pole stars of art and commerce. Valere is a shameless ham willing to do anything to win over an audience, while Elomire has some standards and fears that a tide of mediocrity is overrunning "a culture doomed to the abyss.'' These two aesthetic antagonists have been brought together by Prince Conti (Jud Williford), the patron of Elomire's troupe who thinks Valere is a genius.
Scheie's Valere is a cross between a romantic troubadour and Borscht Belt comedian. His buffoon isn't as crass and lowdown as he is sometimes played, more Shakespearean, less Saturday Night Live. His exchanges with Torfeh's acerbic Elomire are a lot of fun.
Unfortunately, much of the play's momentum is lost whenever anyone else is speaking — or not speaking much, in the case of the maid Dorine (Devereau Chumrau), whose vocabulary is limited to one-syllable words in a tedious running gag. Williford's clueless impresario, though capably performed, seems like a missed opportunity for a role that is often camped up (the prince was changed to a princess in the Broadway revival that just closed).
After Valere's piece de resistance, La Bete sags, as the second act is largely taken up by the play-within-a-play The Parable of Two Boys from Cadiz, a spoof of a boring play that is precisely that. But just when you're about to give up, the final scene comes alive, as Elomire rails against a cheap, vulgar age that prizes commentary and interpretation over art. From the France of Louis XIV to 21st century America, it sounds uncomfortably familiar.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at Tampabay.com/blogs/critics.