Idle rich do the Devil’s work in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, turning innocents and believers into pliant lovers ripe for betrayal, all for their personal amusement. Cruelty and revenge are her driving passions, La Marquise de Merteuil says to Le Vicomte de Valmont, her former lover and now co-conspirator in random acts of physical and emotional devastation. They’re odd anti-heroes for our time, having been the subject of an epistolary novel published in the years leading up to the French revolution but re-emerging in modern times first through a celebrated play by Christopher Hampton seen in London and on Broadway, and then in two popular films: Stephen Frears’ 1988 Dangerous Liaisons (Hampton won an Oscar for the screenplay) and Milos Forman’s 1989 Valmont.
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There’s so much ice in their veins that it’s had to imagine how Merteuil and Valmont have achieved fame in their circles as passionate lovers, but that’s the genius of Choderlos de Laclos’ fiction — that, and the terrible truth that self-deception is often an inevitable step in the dance of seduction. Such characters are catnip to actors willing to take on such unlikable yet irresistible roles, and in the new Broadway revival of the play, we have two of the very best: Liev Schreiber and Janet McTeer.
Schreiber (HBO’s Ray Donovan; A View From The Bridge) is an American method actor whose fine technique grounds an essential, from-the-gut approach to character. McTeer (Me Before You, Albert Nobbs) lands more heavily on technique — as anyone who saw her Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House will attest. The one time she just let it rip was in last summer’s all-female production of The Taming Of The Shrew in Central Park; she was hilarious as a swaggering, crotch-grabbing Petruchio determined to woo the yowling Kate of Cush Jumbo.
As you would expect, then, there’s technique aplenty on display in Josie Rourke’s revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a production first mounted last year at London’s Donmar Warehouse, where she is artistic director. If in the 1980s the play could be seen as a not-so-subtle augur of an America on the verge of moral collapse from the self-indulgence and
apathy of the ruling yuppie class, so today it’s not too surprising to see the story filtered through a feminist sensibility. It is, after all, primarily about Merteuil’s plan to have Valmont destroy her recent lover’s reputation by orchestrating the violation of Cécile Volange, the ex’s virginal fiancée; and about Valmont’s determination to bed the morally upright, happily married Madame de Tourvel. His success in both missions is discomfitingly close to rape, in the matter of Cécile, and grand larceny, in the matter of Tourvel.
In one of their late exchanges, Merteuil explains to Valmont why men will always have the upper hand in such adventures. “You can ruin us whenever the fancy takes you,” she says. “All we can achieve by denouncing you is to enhance your prestige.” By the end, she’s on a one-woman mission to redress that imbalance of power by punishing Valmont for the fatal error — or ultimate betrayal — of falling in love with his prey.
I don’t think the feminist angle is new to Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and certainly not new to Hampton’s terrific script, now three decades old. So Rourke’s production seems so much gilding of the lily, as it were, making the points with as heavy a hand as possible. It’s skillfully performed, sometimes visually arresting but mostly just plain crude.
This is especially so in the performances Rourke draws from her stars. McTeer, who is tall and regal, seems to pause before each over-emphasized curl of the lip, arch of the eyebrow, pointing of the finger, in a performance that unfolds as if in stop-action until her penultimate scene, when Merteuil explodes in jealous rage at Valmont. Schreiber, who exudes plenty of sexual charisma in other settings, here takes some getting used to in wig, breeches and ruling class accent. Neither the bon mot nor the catty snipe roll trippingly off his tongue, and his protestations of life-changing ardor for Tourvel are cringe-inducingly unconvincing. He’s much more believable when he’s got one hand over young Cécile’s mouth while shoving the other up her sleeping gown.
Rourke is gentler with the play’s victims. First among them is the Tourvel of newcomer Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, who’s persuasive and heartbreaking as a beautiful, confident woman who fights and fights until she can no longer. She fractures when the departing Valmont utters his most famous line, “It is beyond my control,” wielding it as a baseball bat. Ellen Kampouris has a lovely eagerness as Cécile, though I’m not sure having her turn the bed into a trampoline in anticipation of her next sex lesson was quite necessary. Mary Beth Peil (The Good Wife) plays Valmont’s dotty old aunt. And Raffi Barsoumian shows promise as the callow young music tutor Danceny. His duel with Valmont, staged by Richard Ryan, is the most exciting scene in the show.
If the acting doesn’t overstate enough, there are weird choral interludes between scenes, courtesy of composer Michael Bruce, that add to the soap opera atmosphere. Tom Scutt’s setting, of palaces already in decline, with draped furniture, empty picture frames and flickering chandeliers, further emphasizes what needs no emphasizing, though the flattering lighting by Mark Henderson and Scutt’s period costumes are terrific. In all, it’s an oddly off-putting mix of period melodrama and contemporary finger-wagging that left me unmoved and deflated for all the wrong reasons.
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