The former Frasier star talks to Matthew Amer about the bravery of producers, performing with Mark Rylance and what La Bête has in common with Big Brother.
It can’t be easy being cast alongside Mark Rylance at the moment. The former Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe won just about every theatre accolade going in the past year for his remarkable performance in Jez Butterworth’s hugely acclaimed play Jerusalem.
In Matthew Warchus’s revival of the Laurence Olivier Award-winning comedy La Bête, the talented performer is given the space and time to deliver a 30-minute monologue packed with tricks and party pieces while the rest of the cast, which includes 11-time Emmy nominee and Tony Award-winner David Hyde Pierce, watch on as he steals the show. Surely for a performer of Pierce’s stature, that must grate just a little? Apparently not.
“His gifts are unbelievable as an actor and there are certainly actors with that kind of talent – especially playing the kind of role he’s playing, which is a kind of obsessive, full-of-himself vulgarian – who would be really good at that part but you would not want to be on stage with them. Mark is not that man. He is an incredibly generous, gracious actor, which is not to say he’s not challenging on stage. He loves to play and I love to go wherever he ends up going.”
Pierce, who is chatting to me on the phone from the comfort of the hotel room that has become his London home during the run of La Bête, is enjoying his time in the capital. While he may be missing his dogs, the feeling of settlement that comes with actually living in London, rather than being a tourist, is bringing out the best in the actor best known for playing younger brother Niles in long-running US sitcom Frasier.
“His gifts are unbelievable as an actor”
“I think our show takes people on a trip that they’re just not expecting,” he says of the David Hirson comedy about the clash between a high-minded classical dramatist (Pierce) and a lowbrow street clown (Rylance). “I don’t think, even if you had read the play, you would expect where this particular production takes you.”
This inventiveness in the revival of the show that won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 1992, he puts down to director Matthew Warchus, for whom he has as much admiration as he does for Rylance: “I am amazed at his ability to really find all the elements of this play; its darkest moments, its funniest moments, the broadest farce, the smallest heartbreaking things. To mine all of these things and have them be present in the production, I’m in awe of him for that.”
It was the combination of Warchus, Rylance and the play that originally attracted Pierce to the production when American producer Scott Landis called him with the proposition. Having signed up following a read through of the play in London, the casting of Joanna Lumley, in a role that was altered for this production from a prince to a princess to include “a strong woman’s voice” in the play, convinced him he had made the correct decision. “It told me, without ever having worked with Matthew, that we were on the same page as far as how we viewed the play and what we imagined it to be.”
Pierce’s involvement with La Bête could have been very different. He auditioned for the original Broadway production, which ran at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in 1991. He didn’t get the role, but swiftly moved on to be cast in Frasier. La Bête ran for just 25 performances, closing after a stinking review from New York Times critic Frank Rich. Though Rich may not have liked the piece, “Every single person I have spoken to who actually saw the production,” Pierce tells me, “has said ‘That was one of the great theatrical events of my lifetime. I’ll never forget it.’” It also received five Tony Award nominations.
“The producers’ hearts are in the right place, but they’re not blind either, they know what a risk this is but they’re up to the challenge”
Pierce is aware, then, of the risky nature of this revival, which runs in London before a Broadway transfer that was booked before anyone knew how popular the piece would be. There are many expectations flitting around the production: the Olivier Award and Tony nominations, the public feeling, the aforementioned damning review. The show’s history leaves it open to more comparisons than if it were on a website advertised by a meerkat. This is why, along with Rylance and Warchus, the show’s producers, which include Sonia Friedman, receive so much of Pierce’s praise: “I am thrilled that these producers are willing to take a risk on something that is not the most obvious choice to do in tough economic times. The choices that they’ve made, as far as I can tell, have all been artistic choices as opposed to financial choices. They chose to cast an entire company – half Brits, half Americans – that will go with the play. The producers’ hearts are in the right place, but they’re not blind either, they know what a risk this is but they’re up to the challenge.”
Pierce knows all about challenge, his natural tendency being to push forward with a new goal. After 11 years playing the lovelorn, neurotic Niles in Frasier, collecting an Emmy nomination in each year of the show’s run, it would have been easy to have become a sitcom regular. Instead, he set his sights on trying his hand at a slightly different field, musical theatre.
As a child he had played the piano, and had even gone on to study classical piano at Yale University, so music had always played a large part in his life. But, as he says, “You don’t just walk in and do eight shows a week of a Broadway musical. You need stamina and vocal training and all these other things.” So, during his time on Frasier, he invested in both vocal coaching and dance lessons so that when the show came to an end he would be ready for that next challenge.
The challenge in question just happened to be Monty Python’s Spamalot, in which he originated the role of Sir Robin. It was another production that came with added pressure. The Pythons’ comedy is loved by many; any unsuccessful messing with a treasure like Monty Python And The Holy Grail, on which the musical was based, could have been greeted with taunts more pointed than ‘Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries’. Pierce’s nerves were settled after the first read through of the script, at which he performed all of the Eric Idle parts while perched next to the former Python and creator of the show. “If I could do Eric Idle in front of Eric Idle, then I didn’t worry about what anyone else thought.”
From Spamalot, Pierce went on to star in the Kander and Ebb musical Curtains, for which he won a Tony Award. When I ask about the coveted accolade, the highest you can get in American theatre, he sounds distinctly underwhelmed. “It was a very nice thing,” he says.
“If I could do Eric Idle in front of Eric Idle, then I didn’t worry about what anyone else thought”
I guess when you receive an award nomination every year for 11 years the novelty of recognition wears off. So what of the time he spent in what is universally accepted as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time?
“It was 11 years of, really, a great group of actors, astonishing writing and a lot of shared life. That’s a long time, so we all have those things in common; cast members getting married and having children. Several of us had our parents appear in guest slots just sitting at the bar or in the coffee shop, and now some of those folks are gone. There’s a lot of deep, rich feeling associated with that show.”
I get the feeling, though, that unlike so many successful TV series, Frasier won’t be receiving a television revamp, movie or musical makeover any time soon, certainly not with the involvement of Pierce. He says, of television in general, “I don’t have a lot left undone that makes me want to go back,” so why would he return to a rehashed version of the sitcom? Better to let it live on in ageless reruns.
He has a new project fermenting, which may or may not come to fruition following the end of his journey with La Bête. Like so many actors, he won’t give too much away this early on, as nothing has been confirmed, but I can be fairly certain it won’t be a stint on a reality TV show. “It does seem to appeal to some of our lower instincts about enjoying people being humiliated and being able to feel better about ourselves because we see someone who isn’t talented trying to do something,” he says of the genre that rose in popularity while he was starring in Frasier and now dominates the airwaves.
I venture that this battle between the lowbrow and highbrow that is being fought in television scheduling meetings around the world, is reflected in La Bête. “As much as it’s about high art and low art,” he replies, “it’s about ideals versus real life. We all have those two things in us; our better selves that we wish we could be all the time and the reality of daily life. The play’s very much about what it’s like to be an insider and what it’s like to be on the outside; Mark’s character being completely outside the world of the play, trying to get in. It ends up being a debate and a contest and a question of who will stay on the inside – the in group – and who will be cast out… like a reality show.”