It is a 17th century library that is 27 shelves high with six sections on each side and twelve on the upstage wall. I know this because I counted them several times during Mark Rylance’s 30-minute monologue to keep myself from going mad.
It is a Herculean task: a 30-minute monologue in iambic pentameter. It really is. You should try it sometime. And if an actor is not alone on the stage, what is also a Herculean task is the job of listening to said same monologue. David Hyde Pierce (Elomire) and Stephen Ouimette (Bejart) do a pretty darn good job. I don't envy them. On the other hand, at least they have something to do, actions to play etc., while they are listening. The rest of us are marooned.
Okay. I am in the minority here. I know that because at the curtain call I found myself in a canyon of standing audience members who were cheering. You would think they had never seen a 30-minute monologue in iambic pentameter before. Oh, right. They HAVEN'T. Maybe some people should get out more often.
The story here is of a 17th century acting troupe in France, beholding to the Princess (Joanna Lumley), who has gotten it into her head that they should admit a new performer/writer Valere (Rylance). She has fallen into that petulant fascination that royals can afford. And because she wants what she wants when she wants it, the company's leader Elomire has no choice. He will, however, go down fighting. But not before we get an extended glimpse of why he feels the way he does.
After a brief but splendid beginning in which one short setup scene and the dialogue following, which tells us all we need to know, Valere enters carrying limp rinds of melon and spitting the bits he has not swallowed all over the set. For the next 30 minutes or so he decries the arts and writing while praising his own travails and travels.
Okay. He is supposed to drive us batty. I get that.
What I don't get is how the director of The Norman Conquests and The God of Carnage could come up with nothing for Rylance to do except roam the stage and sling iambic pentameter with the sensitivity of a high school thespian. He does use the chamber pot in a tiny upstage closet but that's kind of shallow as actions go. Rylance's inflection becomes monotonous because there is no color or variation or subtext to what he is doing. I understand that the character is a person for whom the sound of his own voice is Heavenly music, but surely the actor cannot be so self-referential? I have heard nothing but raves about Rylance. And I have enormous admiration for Warchus. So this one note clown that is Valere is dumfounding to me.
The entrance of the Princess – I want to enter the room that way some day – cracks open the rest of the play. Suddenly there is air in the theatre again. Lumley steams into view and somehow wrestles the focus over to her end of the pier as she engages in a cutthroat exchange with Hyde Pierce that is a Battle Royale. Elomire is disabused of any notion that he has control over what will or will not happen to his company. The Princess (and the excellent raggedy Anne Doll hanging from her waist) wants Valere in. P-e-r-i-o-d. In fact she wants to SEE him perform. His flaws she maintains are superficial and Elomire of all people must see through that, mustn't he?
To wit, HRH commands that Valere perform his show The Parable of Two Boys from Cadi, and then insists that members from Elomire's company join him. In spite of Valere's protestations they do. When Princess is more than pleased with the result, the final insult comes when Elomire's company turns their back on him and chooses to follow Valere, who is now the Princess's favorite.
The moral: Actors are pawns. They go where there is work. 'Tis money provides the work and seeks recompense for that provision. And there is no accounting for what the public will swallow.
The real action at this production happened in the Ladies Room where, following this intermission-less production, a gaggle of us repaired for obvious reasons. The question that was passing among us was “What WAS that?” “Am I missing something?” “What was going on?” “About halfway through that guy’s speech I was all done.” Most of them seemed to like Mark Rylance, so in that camp I was also in the minority. But nobody had a clue as to what we just saw.
The one thing everyone agreed on was that the jewel of the evening was Greta Lee who, as Dorine, was given five words with which to communicate (Blue. New. True. Two. Shoe.). This she accomplishes with startling clarity and some hilarious pantomime. And at the end of the evening, when all the actors have forsaken Elomire and he spouts:
Are you prepared to live with what you’ve said?
Have you considered what this choice will mean?
Does no one understand?
Is it Dorine who says, "I do." And it is Dorine who is the only one left standing at Elomire's side as he embarks, Quixote-like, to find an honest discourse instead of one undermined by fools.
So, chums -
Thus ends the tale of this bewildering play,
And why the audience cheered I cannot say.
What's gold to some is paste in other's view,
And none can claim the crown on what is true.
I leave your choice for you, my dearest reader,
To make when next you venture to the theater.
"Even with Mr. Rylance blundering away center stage, an air of deflation sets in by the play’s second half."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"While the new production, direct from London, can't keep the play from being a windy enterprise, it succeeds in making it ever accessible and wildly funny."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
" The revival... is as good as can be, zippily directed by Matthew Warchus and powered by a dream cast led by David Hyde Pierce, Joanna Lumley and Mark Rylance. The last more than steals the show: He pulls off a one-man "Ocean's 11" heist... Rylance may well bag another statuette for his performance here."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
John Simon for Bloomberg
"Perfectly balances slapstick farce with sophisticated banter."
David Sheward for Back Stage
"Proved a monumental folly when it debuted on Broadway in 1991. The overall experience is little better the second time around. The play is still dead in the water."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"Mark Rylance, one of the finest actors alive, delivers a tour de force performance spewing what is very likely the most dazzlingly outrageous, tasteless and grotesque monologue ever seen on a Broadway stage -- and he does it for well over a half hour -- topping himself by the minute. That alone is worth the ticket price."
Roma Torre for NY1
"If Hirson's clever play is no long-lost jewel, Warchus' direction certainly polishes it very well."
Michael Summers for Newsroom Jersey