Playwright David Hirson insists that his faux Moliere, hall-of-mirrors comedy, “La Bete,” doesn’t easily serve up any answers. But the story behind this play--opening today at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre-- certainly serves up questions.
How did a young man in his late 20s, with no formal theater training, manage to write his first play in iambic pentameter?
How did his play attract Broadway producer Stuart Ostrow, veteran British director Richard Jones, opera and dance designers Richard Hudson and Jennifer Tipton and no less than Andrew Lloyd Webber as co-producer of the $2-million production?
How did they all--and the play--survive the firing of the star, Ron Silver, early in the Boston tryouts, and still manage to open on Broadway in 1991 with virtually no advance ticket sales?
And how did “La Bete” (“The Beast”) survive both a New York critical lashing and a brief one-month Broadway run, nab several Tony nominations, play successfully in London, win the 1992 Olivier Award for best comedy, and become one of the hot titles on the American regional theater circuit?
“I can’t honestly say,” responds Hirson, 34, at his mother and stepfather’s Sherman Oaks home. “I’m not sure I could have gone through it as sanely as I did were it not my first play. In a strange way, I felt distant from everything, because I was in such disbelief that it was happening.”
It was also like “42nd Street,” in which the understudy--in this case, Tom McGowan--comes on for the lead and steals the show. “I didn’t know if he even knew the lines when he came on in Boston,” Hirson says. “But then I saw him strut on, and I was seeing my play on the stage for the first time.”
Hirson, to be sure, did not come to the theater cold. His mother is the actress Alice Hirson, his father is playwright Roger Hirson (“Pippin”), and he trained for the show’s literary demands as a Yale English major and an Oxford scholar.
And, despite the play’s iambic pentameter clothing, it tells a simple enough story. A mid-17th-Century troupe led by the oh-so-serious playwright Elomire (the anagram for Moliere used by his enemies) enjoys the patronage of Prince Conti at his palace. In order to stir up what he perceives as Elomire’s musty theater, the Prince invites--to the effete author-manager’s horror--street entertainer Valere to join the troupe. Valere doesn’t merely thank everyone for their kindness; he effuses in a baroque, grandiloquent 25-minute speech on the Greatness of Valere.
Many critics condemned Hirson for not knowing where to go from there. Hirson now says that the controversies he never intended for his play may have indeed frozen his writing juices.
That problem is past him, he says, as he’s now writing “a completely different” play from “La Bete” and a screenplay.
Ostrow, who purchased the “La Bete” production rights after a single reading arranged with actor Ron Liebman, voices astonishment about Hirson’s ability even two years after the Broadway storm. Speaking by phone from his New York home, the producer notes that “what David held on to through the rough times was his trust in the artists around him, like Richard Jones.”
Another question--why the rhyming couplets?
“There’s the reference to Moliere’s poetry,” Hirson says, “but I think I was also very influenced by the 1988 presidential primaries when I began the play. Everyone became concerned with sound bites. I saw how, if you dress it up right, people will swallow the Big Lies of politicians. The couplet style let me show how form can actually pass for content . . . (and) share my word joy with others.
“The play speaks to the listener beneath the seductive surface, which is also what the play is really about. I want audiences to like Valere, even though he’s an ass. People attacked me, demanding to know what I really thought of Valere and Elomire. I still don’t know.”
None of this--not The Speech, the rhymes, the ideas--sounds much like an Andrew Lloyd Webber property, however. Hirson mailed Ostrow an unsolicited copy of the script after he saw the producer, who brought “M. Butterfly” to Broadway, remark on a TV cable program that he was interested in “different scripts.”
After the reading, Ostrow sent Webber the script; Webber sent back the offer to put up half the money. “It’s the first time Webber has ever put his name on a straight play, let alone such a difficult one as this,” Ostrow notes. Because that name became such a target for “La Bete’s” critics, Hirson says it may be the last time.
At the John Anson Ford, no such “blessed curse,” as Hirson terms it, is attached to the play. Staged by Paul Verdier and his Stages Theatre Company, the play is finally in the hands of a Frenchman who has actually visited the palace where “La Bete” takes place.
“Because we’re in an outdoor theater,” Verdier explains, “I’m setting the action in the palace’s garden, for a summery feeling.”