Les Liaisons Dangereuses
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
May 4, 2008
With their new Broadway production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Christopher Hampton's adaptation of the 1782 novel by Choderlos de Laclos, Roundabout Theatre Company once again proves that when it comes to high-end revivals no other company in town does them better. This classy production exhibits their trademark care, elegance, and good taste. Solid acting, striking design, and clear direction proliferate in this revival, which emerges as a worthy successor to both the original 1987 Broadway production and director Stephen Frears's classic 1988 film version, Dangerous Liaisons.
The action takes place in the salons and bedrooms of 1780s French aristocracy, and centers on the romantic and sexual machinations of two long-time friends (and former lovers), La Marquise de Merteuil and Le Vicomte de Valmont. For them, love is a game of conquests and one-up-man-ship. It doesn't matter who gets hurt as long as this duo gets what they want.
Valmont is especially predatory, setting his sights on both the virtuous and God-fearing La Presidente de Tourvel (married, by the way) and the underage innocent Cecile Volanges. The former, with her steadfast morals and religious faith, presents a delicious challenge for Valmont. The latter he takes on as a favor to Merteuil, revenge for a perceived wrong done to her.
The stakes get raised for these two when, in an attempt to sweeten the pot, Merteuil agrees to spend the night with Valmont (something he's been craving again for a while) if he can provide written evidence of Madame de Tourvel's seduction. Complications naturally ensue when a third potential suitor—this one for Merteuil—enters the picture, and Valmont starts to (gasp!) feel something for one of his intendeds.
When Les Liaisons Dangereuses opened on Broadway back in the 1980s, it seemed strikingly high-brow and sophisticated. But now, a little more than 20 years later, it feels a little humdrum. The play's pith, wit, and sauciness are still evident, but the plot isn't any deeper than that of a bawdy sex farce. Which, wisely enough, is exactly how director Rufus Norris handles it. If his staging lacks the actual slamming doors that might give the play the appearance of a farce, he still imbues the production with the proper spirit: irreverent and relentless, without being fall-on-the-floor madcap and zany.
Norris is ably assisted by Ben Daniels's performance as Valmont. He plays the leading role as a sly, charming, cocksure scoundrel, never doubting his abilities to meet, attract, and seduce women. He comes off as nothing less than the 18th century equivalent of a pick-up artist. The entertaining, hedonistic hubris Daniels endows Valmont with helps galvanize the production.
It should be mentioned that Norris's decision to approach the material this way—and Daniels's game willingness to play along—goes a long way towards making it palatable. I suspect that if Les Liaisons Dangereuses were approached as a full-on drama, these characters and their admittedly petty, selfish escapades might be a little hard to take. They'd be sociopathic if they weren't so laughable. (Cruelty, after all, is Merteuil's favorite word.)
Other cast members who make a strong impression are Jessica Collins, as the jittery Madame de Tourvel, and Mamie Gummer as the innocent Cecile (her recounting of a late night run-in with Valmont earns the production's biggest laughs). Stage veterans Kristine Nielsen and Sian Phillips (playing Cecile's mother and Valmont's aunt, respectively) head a strong supporting cast that keeps Les Liaisons Dangereuses running on all cylinders.
Only Laura Linney, playing the icy Merteuil, falters here, and for reasons that may not necessarily be her fault. She looks ill at ease playing a role that isn't comfortably within her range: her innate goodness and purity betray the fact that she doesn't possess nearly enough of Merteuil's ruthlessness. Linney also never quite endows her performance with enough specificity to give it full-bodied dimension.
But still, this Les Liaisons Dangereuses—handsomely designed by Scott Pask (sets), Donald Holder (lights), and Katrina Lindsay (costumes)—has more than enough going for it to be enjoyed by both savvy and casual theatergoers.