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Tête Offensive 

One brainy farce and an angry debate

Wednesday, Jun 28 2006
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Two classically trained performers interview a potential colleague — a flamboyant showman partial to tight zebra- and leopard-print leggings, open-chested shirts and long, flowing tresses. The new guy prances acrobatically about the room while discussing his favorite subject — himself. This scene isn’t a reenactment of Eddie and Alex Van Halen’s first meeting with David Lee Roth, but an early moment in David Hirson’s 1991 play, La Bête, currently running at Sacred Fools. (Stages Theater Company presented it at the Ford Amphitheater in 1993.) The setting is a French nobleman’s home, circa 1654. Elomire (Joe Jordan) and Bejart (Philip Newby) head up a troupe of actors who, after spending many a year in the wilderness, now enjoy the patronage of Prince Conti (Christopher Nieman). The artists’ world, however, is thrown into turmoil after the Prince, who has been enchanted by the shtick of a street performer named Valère (Dan Mailley), insists they accept the tummler into the company. Elomire, the troupe’s somewhat stuffy, high-minded founder, is horrified by the prospect, while the pragmatic Bejart urges compromise. The resulting tug of war between idealism and expediency provides La Bête with its buoyant ideas and comic rocket-thrust.

It’s easy to become lulled by Hirson’s rhyming iambic pentameter and his play’s madcap narrative, which re-creates the Molière-like atmosphere of classic French comedy without the door slamming of French farce. The centerpiece of Valère’s first meeting with Elomire (play Scrabble with his name and you’ll come up with Molière) and Bejart is Valère’s extraordinarily long resumé speech, in which he goes mono a mono for 20 minutes, continuing even while urinating in the Prince’s garden. “ ‘SHUT UP! SHUT UP! GIVE SOMEONE ELSE A CHANCE!’ ” Valère commands himself, only to admit in the next breath, “I’ve had that said to me all over France . . .” In Act 2, the Prince compels Valère to stage an impromptu performance of his play, The Parable of Two Boys from Cadiz, with members of Elomire’s troupe. It’s a hollow trifle that Elomire hopes will bring everyone to their senses, but by La Bête’s end, the troupe and their patron warmly embrace Valère, sending Elomire back into the artistic Siberia whence he came.

At first glance we may think we’re watching a fable about stuck-up, subsidized artists who get their comeuppance at the hands of a populist entertainer. (We can almost hear Elomire’s blood curdle at the semiliterate doggerel Valère glibly spouts in Dr. Seussian couplets.) Slowly, however, we begin to suspect that if we overlook Elomire’s priggishness we might glimpse something nobler in the man, the stance of a principled loner. All the more so after Valère, who has noted with macabre glee that Elomire always writes freakish characters for the humpbacked Bejart to play, casts the same Bejart as a hideous woman in his own work. Finally, when Valère’s comments (“To be successful the play must fail”) are treated as Aristotelian writ by the Prince, the jig is up. Valère is no wise fool — it’s that the others are unwisely fooled.

La Bête is a tour de force of pyrotechnical writing that also asks questions about the nature of art and popular taste. For all his egotistical folderol, Valère clearly strikes a chord with the Prince and Elomire’s own band of loyal followers. Very simply, they are bored by Elomire’s starchy classicism and yearn for something with a tan line — performances that goose laughs and raunchy groans from their audiences. Everyone reaches out to Elomire to suggest some form of middle ground, but the wounded idealist decides to go it alone, “by starting on the journey once again.” It’s a melancholy moment that perfectly ends a raucous evening.

Director Kiff Scholl’s production is both playful and intelligent, blessed by a cast that knows the boundaries between going to the mat with their roles and going overboard. Mailley’s Valère combines the right amounts of naiveté and oafishness to keep his character interesting rather than merely annoying, while Jordan allows his frosty disdain to melt slowly enough to allow us belatedly to sympathize with him. The diminutive Newby, in his secondary role, turns in a quietly grand performance as besieged Bejart; with mouth perpetually agape and eyelids at half mast, he exhales Chekhovian weariness. In a sense he is this play’s arbiter, and when he casts his lot in with Valère we truly feel Elomire’s isolation.

Artistic soul searching of another sort lies at the heart of Jeffrey Sweet’s 1983 work, The Value of Names. The 90-minute one-act, appearing at the Fremont Center, looks at some exceptionally awkward situations created when a young actress not only drops her father’s Jewish-sounding last name but also winds up being directed onstage by the man who betrayed him to the House Un-American Activities Committee 30 years before. Norma Silverman (Emily Button) is staying with her divorcé father, Benny (George Wyner), a former TV-sitcom star, at his Malibu-hills home while she learns her lines in a new play. During some back-deck conversations, Benny’s distaste for Norma’s appearing in the play topless clashes with her irritated announcement that she had to learn about her protective father’s Red Scare blacklisting through history books instead of his own candor.

Before long, however, the embodiment of that painful era rolls up on PCH in the form of film director Leo Greshen (Michael Durrell), who was Benny’s friend and mentor when they worked in the 1930s with the New Labor Players, and before Leo gave Benny’s name to HUAC as his price of Hollywood stardom. This kind of play, of course, has what might be called The Scene — a verbal settling of accounts between antagonists that alternates between tentative rapprochement, moral debate and generational kvetching. (An entire play and film, The Quarrel, based on a Chaim Grade short story, were hung on such a scene.)

Sure enough, when Leo drops by to talk to his actress, he’s soon left alone with Benny, and the two discuss prostate cancer, the Freedom of Information Act and, inevitably, the ethics of Leo’s long-ago decision. To Sweet’s credit, nothing gets tied up in pink bows; just when reconciliation seems to rear its affable head, Benny spits on Leo’s attempts to bury the past. On the other hand, the play doesn’t seem to know when to get serious and when to lighten up. At times it sounds like one of Benny’s sitcoms, at others it comes across as a Lifetime channel melodrama — with all the attendant stretches in logic. Leo’s spontaneous decision to drop in on Norma in Malibu, for example, makes no sense at all. People in L.A. never drive through traffic without first calling to see if the person they’re visiting is actually home.

There’s also a little historical tweaking that discolors the story. Sweet would have us believe that Benny (and, by implication, others) ran afoul of HUAC simply because he contributed to a Spanish Republican benefit, or perhaps signed a petition to free Tom Mooney. The truth is that most people whose names were given to HUAC had at least briefly belonged to the Communist Party. We’re also led to think that the great sin of Leo, the Elia Kazan–like director, was to give up Benny’s name. In reality, nearly everyone called before the committee gave names (most of which were already known to the committee), but few of them were ever condemned by history. Kazan’s big political mistake was to flaunt his snitching in sanctimonious ads taken out in The New York Times — but since Leo is not implicated in anything like this, it’s difficult to share Benny’s resentment or to understand his abrupt pronouncement to Norma at the very end.

Director Stan Roth gets some convincing scenes from his cast, notably its older principals. Wyner, who bears a resemblance to comedian Larry David, keeps the audience off balance by swinging between Groucho Marx–like banter and moodiness, while Durrell does come across like the kind of climber who mistakes a nagging conscience with a bad case of heartburn.?

LA BÊTE | By DAVID HIRSON | SACRED FOOLS THEATER, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hlywd. | Through July 23 | (310) 281-8337

THE VALUE OF NAMES | By JEFFREY SWEET | FREMONT CENTER THEATER, 1000 Fremont Ave., S. Pasadena | Through July 23 | (866) 811-4111

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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