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Les Liaisons Dangereuses

I always knew I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own,. —La Marquise de Merteuill to Valmont, explaining the social conditions that forced her sex into a form of slavery, and strong women like her to indulge in acts as monstrously cruel as the sex that has enslaved her.

Men enjoy the happiness they feel; we can only enjoy the happiness we give. So to hope to be made happy by love is a certain cause of grief.—Madame de Rosemonde, Valmont's wise in the ways of the world aunt.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Quick question: Name a famous epistolary novel. Quick guess on my part: your answer will be Les Liaisons Dangereuses> written by an army officer named Choderlos de Laclos.

Quick trivia fact: Though the novel was a thinly disguised putdown of the decadent aristocrats of the late 18th Century it's said to have been a favorite "good read" with Marie [let them eat cake] Antoinette and her friends.

While modern writers have occasionally done well with the epistolary genre de Laclos's diabolical sex game players continue to be the best-known troublemakers. That said, most people know their story not from the book but via stage or screen versions.

Undoubtedly the smartest and most successful script adaptation was written by Christopher Hampton in 1987. It first hit the boards in London with Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, and later in New York. Hampton's version continued to gain circulation as a film starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich as the predatory aristocrats and Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman as their preys. It was used for the last Broadway revival in 2008. Now Hampton's play is back, this time a transfer of last winter's London production helmed by Donmar Warehouse artistic director Josie Rourke at the Walter Kerr Theater.

Rourke has brought along her chief designers and the always riveting Janet McTeer as the Marquise de Merteuil, but the rest of the cast is now American. The good news is that the Marquise gets to spar with Liev Schreiber, one of our best actors return to the stage after a too long absence.

While the Marquise plays the role of the instigator in the sexual power play, the juicer role is that of Le Vicompte de Valmont, her all-too willing partner in the destructive sexual games that fascinate us even as they repel. And Schreiber is an intriguing choice to play the nasty seducer.

The foppish Valmont issn't a natural fit for Schreiber. Yet, he displays deft comic timing to bring out the eye-winking humor in Hampton's text — like the double entendres ("I found her very open to persuasion") and the amusing physical business like using the backside of prostitute Émilie (Katrina Cunningham) as a writing desk. In the second and more emotionally resonant act which culminates with a terrifically effective duel, Schreiber's Valmont stirred memories of his unforgettable Iago in a 2001 production of Othello.

The plot, in case you need a refresher: Valmont and the Marquise are former lovers turned cruel conspirators. He initially rejects her plan to seduce Cécile (Elena Kampouris), a young convent girl who, to the Marquise's displeasure, has been affianced to one of her own lovers. However, he agrees when he sees a chance for a double seduction when he meets Madame de Tourvel (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen), a solidly married woman who is friendly with his aunt Madame de Rosemonde (Mary Beth Peil). She not only presents more of a challenge (Valmont wants her to fall in love with him not just to be seduced) but unsurprisingly ends up being the cause of Valmont's comeuppance, turning the frivolous game into a deadly battle.

The real game spoiler is of course that despite Merteuil's insistence that "card sharps sit at separate tables" she's still attracted to him, and he to her. And so, while the sexual sizzle between them is quite understated, the pain of unadmitted love and jealousy does lurk like a cancer behind the love games that end up hurting them as well as their victims. Though he doesn't fumble or mumble drunkenly, the way this Valmont is hardly ever without a glass of wine in his hands is likely to make you wonder if his unresolved feelings have turned him into an alcoholic.

There's no question that Ms. Rourke has given the nasty pair's story a striking and symbolically rich production. We are immediately drawn into the atmosphere of a way of life coming to an end by Tom Scott's set. The covered furniture and paintings stacked against the wall give the impression of an imminent move by the large room's occupants. The most ominous symbols of dark times to come are, as our London critic Lizzie Loveridge noted, the rising and falling candle lit chandeliers hung with rubies instead of white crystals. It's as if those chandeliers were dripping blood and thus alluding to the French Revolution seven years hence. Scutt's costumes add to the visual pleasures

Janet McTeer is superb as the elegantly evil Madame de Mertreuil. She is the epitome of sinister as she ostensibly takes the ingenue Cecile (Elena Kampouris) under her protection and acts as the go between for Cécile's romance with the young Le Chevalier Danceny (Raffi Barsoumian) while enabling Valmont to seduce her. She is at her most potent when she explains how she invented herself to Valmont in what is essentially an 18th century feminist credo: "Women are obliged to be far more skillful than men. . .you hold every ace in the pack. You can ruin us whenever the fancy takes you: all we can achieve by denouncing you is to enhance your prestige. We can't even get rid of you when we want to. . . I had to invent not only myself, but ways of escape no one else has ever thought of. . ."

Mary Beth Peil, as usual, makes a strong impression as Valmont's devoted but open-eyed aunt. Elena Kampouris and Katrina Cunningham aptly display innocence aroused in the game players' foils, as is Raffi Barsoumian as Cécile's easily deceived suitor.

I have nothing but praises for the stylish staging of this much told tale of sexual intrigue. And the current presidential campaign, with its focus on groping, predatory males, underscores the evolving timeliness of Hampton's text more than ever. Still, the nine scenes comprising each act feel overlong during the 90-minute first part.

Finally, the director's filip to have the servants occasionally break into song, made me wish that one of these days, someone would bring us a real musical adaptation. Actually it's already been done by book writers and lyricists Amy Powers and David Topchik and composer Megan Cavallari with The Game which was produced at Barrington Stage a number of years ago (Joy Franz, in the current production's minor role of Victoire actually played Madame de Rosemonde in that one). No disrespect to Mr. Hampton's witty Le Liaisons, and this productions, it would be nice for audiences to have a chance to hear Mertreuil and Valmont, and not just the servants sing? Have I already got you casting about in your mind for who to best do the honors?

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Les Liaisons Dangereuses
>Written by Christopher Hampton after Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Directed by Josie Rourke
Cast: Janet McTeer (La Marquise de Merteuil), Elena Kampouris (Cécile Volanges), Ora Jones (Madame de Volanges), Liev Schreiber (Le Vicomte de Valmon), Josh Salt (Azolan), Mary Beth Peil (Madame de Rosemonde), Birgitte Hjort Sorensen (Madame de Tourvel),Katrina Cunningham (Émilie), Raffi Barsoumian (Le Chevalier Danceny), David Patterson (Major-domo), Laura Sudduth (Julie),Joy Franz (Victoire).
Set & Costume Designs: Tom Scutt
Lighting Design: Mark Henderson
Sound Design: Carolyn Downing
Original Music: Michael Bruce
Fight Director: Richard Ryan
Movement Director: Arthur Pita
Stage Manager: Jane Grey
Running time:
From 10/08/16; opening 10/30/16; closing 1/08/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 29th press matinee

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