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Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuse is at the Wilma Theater (Avenue of the Arts) until December 23. A life of nasty trivial pursuits marks time for the Marquise de Merteuil, a malevolent trickster (played superbly by Lise Bruneau), and Vicomte de Valmont (played by Richard Thompson, who does a good job as her wily co-conspirator).

The production opens to a symmetrical scene of large windows with red drapes framing a pseudo Fragonard, "The Swing", in the center. The painting is a good choice --rococo, which at the time of the play (1780's) is already going out of date, as is the lifestyle of the rich and secretly infamous portrayed on stage.

Jilted by a lover, the Marquise intends to get even by ruining his life. To this end she enlists Valmont, another former lover, to seduce her mark's virginal intended, Cecile (Mary Kathrine McCool). The outwardly charming but vicious Marquise wants to make her old lover suffer and wreck Cecile's life in the bargain. The fact that Cecile is the daughter of the Marquise's dear friend (affectingly played by Nancy Boykin) makes her all the more odious. For his part Valmont, a creature seemingly beyond redemption, signs on to despoil Cecile for "the pleasure of watching her betray everything that's important to her."

Valmont, face powered white like a spectre, conspires with his valet (played unxious and oily by David Bardeen) to compromise one woman in order to trap another. He transforms Cecile from an innocent into an erotic coquette for the sport of it, seduces La Presidente de Tourval (Adrienne Dreiss), a good woman who falls hopelessly in love with him, and flagrantly entertains a courtesan Emilie (the delightful Kirsten Quinn). Valmont's artifice is staggering, as he tells Tourval, "I must have you or die." And flippantly, "Death it is," when she persists in denying him his desires.

Danceny, a young hopeful for Cecile's hand, well played by Wilma newcomer Matthew McIver, is handled, managed, and manipulated in concert with the Marquise, who throws in seduction for good measure.

The novel by Laclos on which Hampton based his play was published in France in 1782. Though not a dramatist, Laclos's epistolary work is influenced by the same sentiments that moved Beaumarchais when his Figaro's Marriage ended the classic phase of French drama in 1784. Both were unhappy with the aristocracy and they wouldn't have minded seeing an end to those trivial lives, drowning in frivolity. However, politics are never mentioned in this play, and the use of a politically symbolic set decoration to end the play, while it may provide a thought-provoking note for the audience, is hardly appropriate.

Director Jiri Zizka states in the play notes, "I realized that no visual imagery could effectively replace the verbal virtuosity with which the characters seduce each other and their audience." Had he not considered visuals and verbals to be mutually exclusive, this would have been a more theatrically satisfying production. The transitions provide the most interesting visual and aural part of the play. Sumptuous fabric patterns are projected as harpsichord music plays. Between transitions, the play is rather stark and too quiet for the period feel desired.

The interplay of earnest characters with duplicitous ones is certainly intriguing, but for all its wordplay, this play is slow and deliberate. The talk is unrelenting, by the end almost too much to bear. It would be nice to see the transition treatments extend into and integrated with the spoken lines. Simultaneity of action would be welcome as well, for the staging is static, despite impressive sliding boudoirs that come and go as required. In a key scene near the end, windows transform and lend some needed obliqueness to the set. Would there had been more of that sort of thing throughout.

Costuming, on the other hand, is just right. The designer is Janus Stefanowicz, who also designed great costumes for several plays I've seen includingb Patience, Passion, and Perfect Pie and The Invention of Loveat the Wilma Theater.

The problem with the play occurs when Valmont realizes that he is truly in love. He probably didn't know that he was capable of true feeling. For most of the evening a tasty, mean-spirited comedy of manners flits across the surface of real issues, as these comedies will. But when it needs to make its transition into something more substantive, the play is not quite up to making a believable leap to emotional depth. However, afficionados of verbal repartee will enjoy the evening's intrigue and sophistication.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Written by Christopher Hampton, based on Novel by Choderlos de Laclos
Directed by Jiri Zizka
Cast: Lise Bruneau, Nancy Boykin, Mary Kathrine McCool, Darren Bevill, Richard Thompson, David Bardeen, Peg Small, Adrienne Dreiss, Kirsten Quinn, Matthew McIver
Scenic Design: Dawn Robyn Petrlik
Lighting Design: Jerold R. Forsyth
Costume Design: Janus Stefanowicz Running time approx 2 hours, 30 mins with one intermission 11/21/2001- 12/23/2001; opening 11/28/2001

Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 11/30 performance
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