Neither the passage of 200 years nor the sexual excesses of the last 20 years have dimmed the power of Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" ("Dangerous Acquaintances.") It tells of two French aristocrats who, for reasons of whim, sexual desire and vengeance, destroy the lives of others.
Although the novel has a sexual frankness quite startling for its time, what keeps it chilling is its depiction of emotional cruelty. The two major characters treat emotion much as the ancient Chinese did gunpowder, as something to be played with, only belatedly aware of its lethal capabilities.
English playwright Christopher Hampton has done an astonishing job of shaping a novel told in letters into a compelling piece of theater. The Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Howard Davies, is so spellbinding it never feels like an 18th century period piece.
The characters, without being "modernized," have a cynicism, an ambition to succeed that should make them perfectly comprehensible to contemporary audiences. Their careers are in "love" rather than business, but the same ruthlessness seems to apply.
Lindsay Duncan's face seems a perfect illustration of 18th century ideals of beauty and elegance, which makes the deadly power she wields that much more disturbing. As her accomplice, Alan Rickman has coarser features, but his nonchalance and his reptilian way of moving make him equally unsettling.
Those are great examples of how strength can come from the simplest, most exquisite movement. Duncan and Rickman are supported by an unerringly polished cast, particularly Suzanne Burden as a virtuous victim.
Bob Crowley's sets and costumes are extraordinary. Nothing on stage is merely pretty. In the glow of Chris Parry's subtle lighting, everything contributes to the drama: even the period furniture seems to conspire against virtue.
The play begins by making us uncomfortable voyeurs. It ends by making us sense a world destroying itself. It is theater at its most impressive.
The games people play - at least the games of love and war - have rarely looked more seductive or more erotic than in the 18th century Parisian boudoirs and salons now conjured up in a golden glow of overblown decadence and post-coital sadness at the Music Box Theater.
The occasion is Christopher Hampton's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," the latest London import from the Royal Shakespeare Company, which opened last night.
It is an evening of high comedy, high drama and surprising passion. Destined to become the most talked-about play of the season, it certainly provides a lot of talk to talk about.
Based on the celebrated, almost notorious, novel by Choderlos de Laclos, the play is a study of corruption and the power of lust.
This is a chess game of emotion and sexual appetite. Its players - the satiated, rather blase grandmasters of desire - are La Marquise de Merteuil, a mature woman of solstice beauty with the morals of a perfumed alley cat and her counterpart, Le Vicomte de Valmost, a chill-seeking rake with a Don Juan reputation, seeking death in numbers.
Sex as an end in itself has lost its simple charms for these well-practiced campaigners - it must be sex as an instrument of power, a weapon of revenge, or merely a benchmark of salon reputation.
Love, it seems, has no role in their activities except as the verbal coin of the realm.
Yet in this game even the most skilled players can miscalculate, can confuse their wants with their needs and let unwitting love kill them unnoticed.
The marquise and the viscount set out to seduce two - or is it three? - innocents, but they go too far. Watching themselves as if in a play, they forget reality, eventually causing disaster.
Laclos wrote his novel - following the example of Samuel Richardson and others - in the form of letters, and its very suggestively dramatic form has always been interesting to stage.
At the beginning of the '60s it was modernized as a movie by Roger Vadim (with Jeanne Moreau and, in his final role, Gerard Philipe). Around the same time, John Barton adapted it for the R.S.C. - the characters acted out the letters, as I recall, in a stylish staged reading.
Christopher Hampton has done more than adapt the novel. He has produced a complete, extraordinarily witty, dramatic realization.
There are certain changes - the marquise is no longer scarred with smallpox at the end - yet perfectly captured are the hothouse atmosphere, the pointless games of honor, the sense of love in a stifling climate, of a leisured class without leisure, and an amoral society where hypocrisy replaces feeling.
The language Hampton has chosen - stilted but not archaic - seems quite perfect in its measured formality, and the dizzying ebb and flow of the play (so suggestive of the to-and-fro of correspondence) is caught in a staging that is cooly impudent in its assurance.
There is a ravishingly beautiful permanent set and permanent costumes by Bob Crowley, which, while far too specific to be abstract, take on a chameleon-like quality as glowingly lit by Chris Parry.
Howard Davies' staging rushes around with the skill of a film editor and the dispatch of a mailman: Scenes are dizzyingly interlocked, as characters boldly turn on their heels only to find themselves in different rooms, hours - or days - later.
The originality of the device is so apt that it might well pass unnoticed, as we in the audience become absorbed (more as if we were watching a movie screen rather than the cage of a proscenium arch) with the doings of these amusing yet ultimately terrifying people.
The characters seem, initially, glossily well-practiced; but when they break, and the play is ripped apart, everything goes together, everything changes, providing the play's knockout undercut.
In just one second, the scenery and lighting are smashed to smithereens, the characters transformed, as the play in its last moments - in the kind of coup de theater Hampton dotes on - transmogrifies into a chilling reality.
The whole thing is terribly, almost terrifyingly, well-done. The actors, until reality breaks through, are as stylistic as gorgeous puppets on the strings of wit.
Alan Rickman as the vainglorious Valmont, lecherously lovable in his wickedness, and the smoothly, wickedly beautiful Lindsay Duncan - of equal brilliance as Juliette, the steel-hearted marquise - lead a cast of impeccable manners.
Only the innocents - Suzanne Burden as a guileless wife overturned by love, Beatie Ednay as a convent schoolgirl avid for lessons school never taught and Hilton McRae, reminiscent of a boy from a Mozart or Richard Strauss opera, are permitted to convey any hint of the play's dangerous undertow.
Also caught in its whirling currents are Jean Anderson as an agedly sympathetic aunt, Lucy Aston as a lubricious courtesan (whose backside serves as a writing table in the novel's most celebrated scene), Kristin Milward as a priggish mother, plus Barry Heins, and particularly Hugh Simon, as cleverly domesticated domestics.
A wonderful cast in a wonderful play. It could be subtitled "French Lessons in the Psychopathology of Sex." And that would not explain half of it; for example, the unexpected, bitter dregs of cyanide at the bottom of this dramatic cup of chocolate. That has to be experienced in the theater.
For the Royal Shakespeare Company production of ''Les Liaisons Dangereuses,'' the stage at the Music Box Theater has been remodeled into a sex-drenched boudoir of late 18th-century France. Signs of reckless carnal abandon are everywhere. Huge linen sheets, rumpled from hectic use, drape the proscenium and boxes. Lacy silk underthings tumble in messy profusion from the hastily slammed drawers of a towering chiffonnier. Tall slatted screens, the better for servants to peep through, cast distorted shadows. All that's missing is a proper regal bed. Instead, there's a constellation of settees and chaise longues: this is an arena for men and women who copulate on the run.
The setting, at once in period and nightmarishly abstracted in Bob Crowley's inspired design, does not belie the action. As readers of Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 novel know, ''Les Liaisons Dangereuses'' is an epistolary daisy chain of mostly furtive couplings - arranged for vicious sport by two scheming, vengeful aristocrats, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. In the ingenious stage version, written by Christopher Hampton and directed by Howard Davies, the lubricious narrative is telescoped and preserved, but so, to the audience's discomfort, is the anxiety-inducing atmosphere of moral disorientation. Laclos, a tactics-minded military man, was writing about sex and power, not romance, about the strategies of seduction, not the joys of sensuality. The stage of the Music Box is not a love nest but a battlefield - soon to be strewn with the mutilated casualties of a pointless, never-ending war.
This is a compelling and, one must add, thoroughly nasty evening, its malicious wit fueled further by a pair of brilliant lead players, Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman. Far more savage than the archetypal contemporary English play about infidelity usually seen on Broadway, ''Les Liaisons Dangereuses'' also eschews the gentility of the middlebrow literary adaptations of ''Masterpiece Theater.'' The astringent Mr. Hampton, whose variable previous works have rethought Moliere (''The Philanthropist'') and Verlaine and Rimbaud (''Total Eclipse''), merges a misanthropic modern sensibility with Laclos's equally icy, if poker-faced, perspective on the decadent ancien regime. Every time one tries to relax and enjoy ''Les Liaisons'' as a spicy, distanced period piece about rich villains in fancy costumes victimizing innocent fools, Mr. Hampton and company shift the perspective just enough to sow doubts as to which side we are really on.
To this unsettling end, the acting fills in the delicate, often ambiguous tonal nuances conveyed by the letters in the novel. Mr. Rickman, with his leonine matinee idol's mane, heavy-lidded eyes and insinuatingly intimate vocal delivery, uses the whole notion of actorliness to define the dissolute Vicomte: He's a man who brazenly impersonates the role of languid lover so he can rape a mindless convent-educated girl of 15, Cecile Volanges (Beatie Edney), and then ruin Mme. de Tourvel (Suzanne Burden), ''a woman famous for her strict morals, religious fervor and the happiness of her marriage.'' As his partner in evil (and long-ago partner in bed), the spellbinding Miss Duncan presents the unscrupulous Marquise as a poisonous fount of bitchy epigrams in private yet becomes a porcelain replica of a refined lady in public. The audience sees who she and the Vicomte really are when their lips part in quick, tightly drawn smiles that reveal a carnivore's mouthful of glittering teeth.
Both characters are handsome yet asexual - which is just as intended. They don't pursue their prey with ''hope for any actual pleasure,'' for they know that pleasure unmixed with love ''must lead directly to disgust.'' They get their kicks instead from the sinister exercise of brute ego and the piling up of ''victories.'' Because the Vicomte and the Marquise are also the cleverest people in view - and, in their exploitative way, the most astute critics of their hypocritically ''polite'' society - they can't be summarily dismissed. Some of the world they selfishly smash is eminently deserving of dismantlement.
In the well-worn manner of present-day English playwrights, Mr. Hampton makes this political point explicit, perhaps overexplicit, by tying the play's latter scenes directly to the coming revolution, which had not happened when Laclos was writing, and by heightening the novel's incipient feminism. In an eloquent Act I monologue, Miss Duncan reminds us that women of her time had no choice but to find any escape they could from the subservient role a society of double standards condemned them to play. ''I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own,'' the Marquise tells the Vicomte, chillingly indifferent to the fact that by reinventing herself as a ''virtuoso of deceit'' she is as monstrous to women as to men.
Although his character lacks any such rationale for his behavior, Mr. Rickman helps keep our snap moral judgments at bay by making it impossible for us to tell when his faked infatuation for the prudish Mme. de Tourvel ends and a real and selfless passion, a sensation he only half-remembers, might be struggling to begin. By Act II it's clear that the Vicomte himself no longer knows what he believes. Mr. Rickman, now reeling and sweaty, presents the harrowing spectacle of a man whose conscience awakens in time for him to recognize his lethal behavior but too late for him to control it.
As the Vicomte's prime target of destruction, the excellent Miss Burden makes piety human - all the better to leave us horrified when forces beyond her imagination attack her catechism of existence. Once Mme. de Tourvel must choose between her convictions and her illicit passion, the contervailing forces of self-hatred and self-gratification prove so powerful that she can only come crashing to the floor, suffocating and shattered. The Vicomte's other victim, Cecile, proves a more comic figure in Miss Edney's shrewd performance, though not when she emits a frightened little squeal that signifies her sad, perfunctory deflowering.
With the exception of Hilton McRae, who is too mature for Cecile's ''mawkish schoolboy'' suitor, Danceny, the supporting cast is fine. New York theatergoers who haven't seen Mr. Davies's work since his slick Brechtian stagings of ''Piaf'' and ''Good'' will be startled by how highly imaginative a director he has become. The transitions that keep the geographically dispersed scenes flowing on the single all-purpose set have a progressively more demented choreography, matched by Ilona Sekacz's increasingly macabre harpsichord music, which distorts and then strips away the sham minuet of 18th-century manners with which the characters camouflage their ruthlessness. The lighting by Chris Parry and Beverly Emmons takes its cues from wintry Bois de Vincennes sunlight outdoors and silver candelabra within; eventually the stage is suffused with a doom-laden Georges de la Tour glow that, like much of the production, recalls Stanley Kubrick's related dissection of late-18th-century European civilization in his Thackeray adaptation, ''Barry Lyndon.''
The image that begins and ends the evening is also out of de la Tour -women playing cards. That suits a work whose principal characters substitute social gamesmanship for emotion and liken themselves to cardsharps. Yet it's not just because Mr. Davies employs an echo-chamber effect that the closing game seems so much more resounding than the first - or that one of Mr. Hampton's final lines, ''We're more than halfway through the 80's already,'' leaves us wondering which 80's the characters are talking about. By then, our sensitivity has been reawakened to the eternal way of a world in which aggression and narcissism almost invariably rout compassion and idealism. Two centuries after Laclos first dramatized these heartless liaisons, it's still a shock to realize how easily the deck of men and women can be stacked so that everyone is dealt a cruel hand.