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Theatre in Review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Booth Theatre)

Liev Schreiber, Elena Kampouris. Photo: Joan Marcus

The poster for the new Donmar Warehouse production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses features Janet McTeer seated, her back resting against an easel on which sits a painting depicting nudes in a pastoral setting. The skirt of her green satin dress is pulled up and Liev Schreiber is pressed against her, his head cradled in her neck and his left hand gripping her exposed thigh. Both appear to be in a state of transport. The image is provocative, erotic, startling -- indeed, everything the production it advertises is not. They may be starring in a drama about the uses of lust, but, for me, seeing the production the other night, the thrill was almost gone.

Some of this may be due to sheer familiarity. Although, the play's source material, the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, is a classic of French literature, it was never that well known here, and when Christopher Hampton's adaptation opened on Broadway in 1987, this tale of sex-and-power games among the French aristocracy -- unfolding just before guillotine blades started to separate those prettily wigged heads from their beautifully dressed bodies -- came as an invigorating shock. But several movie versions, a television miniseries, and one other Broadway revival later, we have grown so familiar with these decadent creatures and their labyrinthine intrigues that something extra is needed to spice things up -- something which, I submit, is altogether missing in Josie Rourke's respectable, but unexciting, staging.

For those who saw it, the 1987 production (from Royal Shakespeare Company), directed by the great Howard Davies (who, sadly, died last week), casts a very long shadow. As designed by Bob Crowley, the characters inhabited a hothouse world of louvered interiors and chaises longues designed to accommodate bodies exhausted by passion and/or plotting. Aided by Chris Perry's lighting, the air was thick with sex, so much so that one easily grasped why the characters, physically sated yet emotionally unfulfilled, had moved on to more sinister pleasures. As that subtlest of intriguers, La Marquise de Merteuil, and her partner in crime, Le Vicomte de Valmont, Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, in star-making performances, were a perfect pair of ex-lovers who, no longer taking physical pleasure in each other yet unable to let go, titillate themselves with rococo charades involving innocent bystanders. The insinuatingly furry, feline purr of Rickman's voice was never put to better use, nor was Duncan's mordant, slashing wit. When Duncan, upbraiding Rickman for repeatedly failing to seduce his mark, murmured knowingly, "The century is drawing to its close, Vicomte," it summed up an entire world of wickedness in a single sentence.

At the Booth, McTeer and Schreiber have their successes, to be sure. McTeer, perhaps taking to heart Merteuil's self-description as "a virtuoso of deceit," is especially good at feigned innocence, seeming to float across the room and speaking in a soft voice that positively drips with virtue. That voice drops notably when coldly explaining to a young girl that, as a woman, she can overcome her social disadvantages by sleeping with as many men as possible. Her voice drops even further, to an intimidating growl, when, furiously confronting Valmont, she finds some smoldering embers in the ashes of their long-dead affair. It's also easy to like the full-circle turn she makes when especially pleased with herself, as if showing off to some invisible audience. Schreiber amuses when outlining an elaborate plan to gain access to a lady's bedroom, and there's something powerfully disturbing in the way that, once admitted, he forces himself on her. (Horror gives way to laughter when the supposed victim, a virgin, takes to her forced seduction with alacrity, nearly overwhelming Valmont in the process.)

For the record, Merteuil has assigned Valmont the task of seducing young Cécile Volanges, by way of humiliating Cécile's fiancé, Merteuil's ex-lover; Merteuil also takes a rooting interest in Valmont's plan to have his way with Madame de Tourvel, a pious matron. Her piety, of course, is the point. "I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that's most important to her," he says. "Surely you understand that." Indeed, Merteuil does. For these two, it is not enough to feel pleasure; someone else must feel pain or humiliation.

But for Les Liaisons Dangereuses to work, these two characters must be seen as voluptuaries of evil, finding a kind of sexual satisfaction in ruining others. This is where Rourke's production runs aground; in some hard-to-isolate, yet utterly crucial, way the two stars fail to connect. Much of the time, McTeer's Merteuil is evasive, enervated, informed by a faint undertone of hysteria; Schreiber's Valmont has the required hard shell of cynicism, but not the perverse pleasure. They conduct their campaigns assiduously, but without real sensuality; they are dutiful, rather than aroused. Even a scene in which Valmont sits with his hand up Merteuil's dress, pleasuring her as they hatch their plots, doesn't provide the erotic spark one might expect.

This weakness is especially apparent in the first act, which features long stretches in which Merteuil and Valmont discuss a variety of offstage characters and events. (At the Booth the other night, I suddenly realized that Hampton's screenplay for the 1988 film version, Dangerous Liaisons, is superior, in its ability to show rather than tell. This is especially so because, in the play, most of the key supporting characters drop out of the action at one point or another, and we have to be informed of their fates.) Things pick up considerably in Act II, when the consequences of these liaisons begin to be truly felt, and Merteuil and Valmont are exposed, bereft of their silken charms, but it is too late to transform one's opinion of a production that gets the job done without much flair or excitement.

If Rourke hasn't gotten the best out of her stars, she does good work with several in the supporting cast, including Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Tourvel, falling to her knees in despair over a passion she neither wants nor condones; Elena Kampouris as young Cécile, who takes to sexual intrigue with abandon; Ora Jones as Cécile's conventional, utterly clueless, mother; Raffi Barsoumian, required to do little more than be handsome as an ardent young lover; Katrina Cunningham as a courtesan who allows her backside to be used as a writing desk by Valmont; Josh Salt as an impertinent servant who provides Valmont with crucial intelligence; and the ever-delightful Mary Beth Peil as Valmont's aunt, whose eminently correct manner doesn't mean she is blind to the plots unfolding under her benign gaze.

Rourke has also overseen a production design that makes high-concept gestures without a clear purpose. This is especially true of Tom Scutt's set design. Entering the theatre, we see what appears to be a room in a disused 18th-century mansion. The wood is chipped, the paint scraped away. The floor is littered with period paintings and the entryways are covered with plastic. Overhead, a set of fluorescent tubes provide a harsh white wash. As the play begins, the plastic disappears, the fluorescents fly out, and in flies a set of gorgeous period chandeliers. It's a highly theatrical opening, the point of which eludes me entirely. Also, in the second act, certain changes are made; for example, at least one large painting has been removed from its frame. What all this fussiness means is a mystery to me; I will add that one moment, when several supporting characters pick up paintings and hold them in front of their faces, jarringly reminded me of "I Hope I Get It," the opening number from A Chorus Line.

Mark Henderson's detailed lighting creates a number of plausible candlelit interior looks, but more could be done to pick out the actors' faces, which are sometimes difficult to read. A moment when Merteuil is caught, standing in front of an empty frame outlined by key light, points to what is often missing elsewhere. At other times, particularly in a duel scene (excitingly staged by Richard Ryan) defined by a single powerful shaft of cold daylight, the lighting works beautifully. Scutt's costumes are stunning throughout, drawing telling comparisons between Merteuil's ultrasophisticated look, Tournel's plainer approach, and Cécile's youthful appearance. The men's tailoring is equally impeccable. Carolyn Downing's sound design provides fine reinforcement for Michael Bruce's original music and such incidental effects as birdsong.

If Les Liaisons Dangereuses is in danger of overexposure, it doesn't mean the play must be confined to the shelf. It does mean, however, that a creative team must find something new in the material to justify another staging. For all the hard work going on at the Booth, inspiration is missing. Merteuil and Valmont go through the motions, but, really, they aren't in the mood. -- David Barbour

(31 October 2016)

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