Vice and depravity wrapped up like a box of bonbons, costumes to die for, a dashing swordfight - and while virtue isn't rewarded, at least the wages of sin are ironically paid.
What is there not to like in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"?
As revived last night by the Roundabout, Christopher Hampton's play is sensual, oddly naughty and totally, impassively immoral.
That sensuality is neatly caught by Rufus Norris' elegantly paced staging and the leads: the couthly chilly Laura Linney, as La Marquise de Merteuil, and a splendiferous Ben Daniels, enjoyably snakelike as the urbane Le Vicomte de Valmont.
The naughtiness constantly undercuts the immorality, as it did in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 epistolary novel of French aristocrats dangerously liaising, and from those gently lascivious 18th-century paintings by Boucher and Fragonard, all frothy skirts and rosy cheeks.
But in the play it largely comes from Hampton's froufrou prose, which in its twisty good manners sometimes sounds like an English translation of a French translation of an English comedy of manners such as Sheridan's "The School for Scandal." And it's acted in much the same English high style.
You can grow a little tired of Daniels' consistent use of one slightly bent knee placed elegantly in front of the other to express the mannerisms of an 18th-century buck. His lubricious performance as Valmont is lighter, wittier and far less passionate than that of Alan Rickman, who originated the role both in London and New York.
But the sheer joyous relish he takes in a wickedness he can't stop, even when his happiness and life depend on it, is horrifically convincing.
Rather less convincing is Linney's unbroken hauteur as the vengeful, conniving Marquise. She seems to be playing poker while Daniels (not to mention Hampton and Laclos) are more persuasively engaged in chess.
Mamie Gummer (yes, the daughter of Meryl Streep) plays Cécile, the convent girl seduced into wantonness, with just the right gauche charm; Jessica Collins, as Madame de Tourvel, Valmont's final and fatal love, hints at but never quite catches her character's febrile ambiguity.
The staging is full of neat cameo performances, notably Sian Phillips' gutsy yet world-weary Madame de Rosamonde and Benjamin Walker as a confused young lover, Le Chevalier Danceny. Norris has made the play cinematic in its fast dissolves, delicately lit by Donald Holder, fading one scene into the next as if by mirrors.
Set designer Scott Pask makes this profusion of mirrors, elegant doors and windows and a few handsomely chosen pieces of furniture into a symbol of France's ancien regime, while Katrina Lindsay's succulent costumes have an impeccable rightness.
The sword fight, most inventively contrived by Rick Sordelet, was played to the hilt by Valmont and his flustered rival, Danceny. It was a splendid exercise in style - with the passion the production as a whole lacked.
The earlier Broadway staging by Howard Davies suggested an emotional wasteland of carnage, with all passion spent.
Here the stakes seem less, but the game remains eminently well worth watching.
Hedonism becomes a gravitational force in Ben Daniels’s compelling turn as an 18th-century libertine in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” which opened Thursday night in an eye-filling, very imbalanced revival at the American Airlines Theater. Making a sensational Broadway debut in Rufus Norris’s production, which also stars an uncomfortably cast Laura Linney, this London actor seems at all times pulled, pummeled and shaped by the prospect of physical pleasure.
From the moment Mr. Daniels makes his entrance as the Vicomte de Valmont, the satin-cloaked satyr of Christopher Hampton’s 1985 adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel, his very posture evokes a man who hears the call of earthly delights at high volume. The thrust hip, the insinuatingly arched back, the precisely crooked arms and knees: these all suggest not only the rococo stance of a nobleman in the age of Fragonard but also a fatal receptiveness to appetite and instinct. The boy can’t help it, which means, in a world governed by calculation, there’s no way he’s going to survive.
Mr. Daniels provides both the silliest and most serious rendering I’ve seen of Valmont, who has been memorably played onstage by Alan Rickman (in the Royal Shakespeare Company production that came to Broadway in 1987) and on screen by John Malkovich (in Stephen Frears’s “Dangerous Liaisons”) and Colin Firth (in Milos Forman’s “Valmont”). His warm, fluid performance reflects what would appear to be Mr. Norris’s intention: to turn up the temperature in a work of famously icy cynicism. Unfortunately no one else in this revival approaches Mr. Daniels’s level of complexity, including Ms. Linney, a wonderful actress who has been shoehorned into a part out of her natural range and is perceptibly pinched.
As a consequence this portrait of a pair of amoral aristocrats who play the game of love as if it were a game of chess often registers with the bouncy bawdiness of a Restoration comedy (right down to a flatulence gag). When the plot turns truly nasty, it’s hard to feel the requisite shivers, and the show often wears the tight smirk of a protracted dirty joke in fancy dress.
This being a Roundabout Theater Company production, the dress is fancy all right. Katrina Lindsay’s lustrous costumes could surely have passed muster at Versailles, while Scott Pask’s set, a dark wall of windows garlanded with swags and pull cords, is just the place for voyeurs who live to catch their reflections in the glass, as well as the compromising doings of others. A tenor and soprano are on hand to sing stately songs by Handel, among others.
Mr. Norris isn’t wrong to give such attention to surface detail. For Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil (Ms. Linney), former lovers locked in a sexual conspiracy and competition, clothing is battle gear. (The opening section of Mr. Frears’s movie was largely devoted to close-ups of the main characters being poured, laced and buttoned into their lavish daily wear.)
The way you wear your hat (or should I say your perruque?) — or your pannier or knee breeches — in this hothouse environment is a signal of how well you understand the rules of your society. And no one grasps those rules better than Valmont and Merteuil, all the better to turn them into weapons in their games of conquest, betrayal and revenge. (Laclos was, appropriately, a French artillery officer with a keen interest in military strategy.)
It’s a problem, though, when only Valmont and, to a lesser extent, Merteuil seem to be of their time. The supporting cast here is perfectly creditable, including Kristine Nielsen (as a foolish mother), Jessica Collins (as the righteous object of Valmont’s most ardent designs) and, quite enjoyably, Mamie Gummer and Benjamin Walker as the most naïve and ungainly of victims.
But aside from the venerably elegant Sian Phillips, who plays Valmont’s worldly aunt (and played Madame de Volanges, Ms. Nielsen’s character, in the Forman film), they feel like contemporary creations. They’re stranded in a distant era, as well as being none too bright. Of course they don’t understand what Valmont and Merteuil have in store for them. They are, to warp a phrase, sitting pigeons for two wily cats, and for much of the play, we laugh as they fall blindly into traps. As Valmont says, when Merteuil proposes he seduce Ms. Gummer’s character, “It’s too easy.”
Still, I suppose it’s just as well these folks are as dim as they are, since anyone with any common sense would back away fast from Ms. Linney’s scarily severe Merteuil. In film (“You Can Count on Me,” “The Savages”) and on Broadway (“The Crucible,” “Sight Unseen”), Ms. Linney has established herself as an actress of peerless emotional transparency, capable of conveying a multitude of conflicting feelings through minimal means.
Here she is required to wear a mask of hypocrisy, and it doesn’t fit. Whether scheming with Valmont, pretending to be a pillar of rectitude or being serviced by a young lover, this Merteuil is made of unyielding stone. I think I see where Ms. Linney is coming from: she’s picked up on the character’s feminist anger and bitterness. She is at her best in her seething monologues about the lot of women. And more than any I’ve seen, this “Liaisons” hints that the Marquise might prefer her own sex.
But when she says contemptuously of the puritanical Madame de Tourvel (Ms. Collins), “They never let themselves go, these people,” she might be describing herself. Wintry to the point of frigidity, this harsh schemer seems incapable of enjoying anything, even being mean. And the luxuriant complicity that Mr. Rickman and Lindsay Duncan embodied so seductively in the original Broadway version is all but nonexistent between Ms. Linney and Mr. Daniels.
Parents hoping to treat their children to an educational visit to pre-Revolutionary France, be warned: Mr. Norris, whose current “Cabaret” in London is notable for its explicit coital ballets, makes a point of revealing what’s beneath those big skirts and tail coats. Several sexual positions are specifically simulated, and Mr. Daniels and Mr. Walker are, briefly, starkers.
Even buck naked, though, Mr. Daniels seems comfortably clothed, just as when he’s fully clothed he seems comfortably naked. His Valmont is a remarkably consistent creation, a man of exuberant moral passivity, more hopelessly sybaritic than truly evil. It makes sense when he is surprised by deeper feelings.
I’m not sure that’s what Laclos had in mind when he conceived Valmont. But Mr. Daniels’s reading of the part can be fully justified by the script. The line that proves to be Valmont’s undoing — “It’s beyond my control” — might well be his mantra throughout. In his final scene Mr. Daniels turns a prolonged sword fight (expertly staged by Rick Sordelet) into a portrait en précis of Valmont’s whole life. It stands out as a miniature masterpiece of light and shadow in a production that otherwise never quite bridges those extremes.
Love is a many splendored thing- except when it isn’t.
In the Roundabout Theatre Company's new production of Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses (*** out of four), the characters played by Laura Linney and Ben Daniels at first seem resolutely unromantic. Anti-romantic, you might even say.
The conniving Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, her former lover and ally in seduction and destruction, were introduced on Broadway 21 years ago by Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman. They're known to movie fans via Glenn Close and John Malkovich, who in the 1988 film adaptation evoked the tortured passions underlying the Marquise's ice-queen malevolence and the Vicomte's cavalier cruelty.
The stars of this revival, which opened Thursday at the American Airlines Theatre, are worthy inheritors. Linney portrays the impervious elegance of a certain type of society woman as ably as Close did. But Linney also transmits an inescapable warmth, making the Marquise's ability to disarm her victims completely convincing, while giving us scrupulously subtle glimpses of her enduring ardor for Valmont.
The witty Daniels, in contrast, seems impenetrable, at least until we grasp the full extent of Valmont's feelings for the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, whose honor he intends to destroy for reasons more complicated than he realizes. When forced to confront his love for this married woman, and how he has hurt her, Daniels powerfully evokes his ravaging guilt and regret.
Scott Pask's sets and Paul Arditti's sound design give Liaisons, set in late 18th-century France, a baroque, at times melodramatic sensuality. But director Rufus Norris ensures that the characters' carnal impulses are accessibly earthy, and he doesn't miss the humor in their travails. Mamie Gummer is drolly adorable as Cecile, the virginal but curious teenager who becomes part of a scheme to avenge another of the Marquise's exes. Benjamin Walker is endearing as Cecile's devoted but clueless young suitor, and Rosie Benton is appropriately luscious and lascivious as a crafty courtesan.
The older supporting actresses, along with Linney, reinforce the more sober, post-feminist insights informing Hampton's spicy period piece. "Men enjoy the happiness they feel; we can only enjoy the happiness we give," the excellent Sian Phillips, as Valmont's wise aunt, tells Madame de Tourvel. "So to hope to be made happy by love is a certain cause of grief."
In spite of that, and the play's tragic consequences, this Liaisons provides naughty, provocative fun.
It's a testament to the wit, ingenuity and economy of Christopher Hampton's distillation of Choderlos de Laclos' epistolary 1782 novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" that this delicious tournament of sex and power never gets old -- regardless of the indelible memory of the original Royal Shakespeare Company production, the toothsome Stephen Frears film or any of its subsequent adaptations, derivations or imitations. In Roundabout's stylish Broadway revival, Hampton's pungent brew of aristocratic mores, salacious scandal, high culture and low innuendo proves resilient -- despite some heavy-handed directorial choices and one crucial piece of miscasting.
In Howard Davies' 1986 premiere for the RSC (which also played Broadway), designer Bob Crowley cleverly nestled France's decadent ancien regime in a defiled boudoir. Scott Pask's multifunctional set for Rufus Norris' staging is a mirrored hall that both reflects and reveals, dominated by a single grand chandelier. Imposing and lugubrious, the space is brushed by Donald Holder's burnished lighting and cloaked in more artful draping than an entire season of "Project Runway." Desires and deceits can just as easily be exposed as concealed here.
If ever there were two figures whose heartless unaccountability could serve to usher in the coming revolution suggested in the play's final scene, it's la Marquise de Merteuil (Laura Linney) and le Vicomte de Valmont (Ben Daniels). Occasional lovers engaged in seduce-and-destroy one-upmanship, they are the principal players in this lethal chess game set in the mid-1780s.
Both for amusement and revenge, Merteuil requests Valmont's help to humiliate a former lover by having him deflower the man's handpicked, convent-educated intended, Cecile Volanges (Mamie Gummer). Valmont dismisses the task as unchallenging, instead setting his sights on Madame de Tourvel (Jessica Collins), a religious married woman famous for her virtue.
His ambitious project is not to break down her prejudices but to make her surrender to him while maintaining her beliefs. Only when Cecile's interfering mother (Kristine Nielsen) obstructs him does Valmont agree to add Merteuil's assignment to his own.
Despite avoiding any "Masterpiece Theater" stuffiness in the actors' conversational delivery, Norris initially appears to put a starchy stamp on the material, allowing dead air to punctuate the dialogue. But this is soon revealed to be a choice tailored in particular around Linney's approach to Merteuil.
All cool poise and control, Linney moves and speaks with regal slowness, rarely allowing herself more than a suggestion of a self-satisfied smile, raising her voice in anger only twice in the play and seldom bothering to bestow eye contact on her subject. At first it seems she's not having enough fun with the role's lip-smacking villainy, but her attitude makes sense for a woman who has parlayed her impenetrable detachment and knack for listening into a supreme art.
"I always knew I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own," she tells Valmont in the glittering monologue in which the Marquise details her self-invention.
Unlike his screenplay for Frears, Hampton's less explicatory text here is more oblique in dealing with Merteuil's comeuppance. In Linney's minutely measured performance, her defeat is less in the inevitability of public rejection than in the crushing realization that she has failed ever to inspire love.
Daniels takes the opposite path. A strutting cock whose insouciant body language and lascivious manner seem to advertise that his reputation as an unscrupulous roue is well earned, his Valmont struggles to maintain his insinuating bravado when love unexpectedly cracks his armor.
The big problem in the drama's central triumvirate is the object of that love. Collins is sorely inadequate and unaffecting as Madame de Tourvel; her flat reading recalls the knowingly anachronistic Hollywood tack of rendering period pieces accessible via contemporary performance styles in films like "Ever After" and "A Knight's Tale." Whether or not it's deliberate, the approach is dead wrong.
Grace, piety and vulnerability -- all are lacking in Collins' work here, which never comes close to the imprint left on the role by Michelle Pfeiffer in Frears' film. Never better before or since, Pfeiffer was like porcelain, glowing from within and exquisitely delicate, while Collins is a blank, suggesting neither a spiritual inner life nor rapturous love. It's a sign of Daniels' command that after winning her heart and then cruelly breaking with her on Merteuil's instructions, we feel more for the torment masked by Valmont's coldness than for Tourvel's fatal wound.
Collins might have been a better fit as malleable Cecile, but that role is served nicely by Gummer. Bringing winsome physical comedy to the girl's seesawing between clueless inexperience and uncorked sexual appetite, she amusingly echoes the Marquise's description of her: "She has no character and no morals, she's altogether delicious." Mother and daughter are well-paired, with Nielsen bringing bug-eyed daffiness and fretful propriety to Madame de Volanges.
Elsewhere in the solid supporting cast, Derek Cecil scores sly laughs as Valmont's valet, almost as vain and louche as his boss. And the invaluable Sian Phillips makes every moment count as Valmont's wealthy aunt, a seemingly dithery old dear who is far more perceptive than she appears.
Not a director who always favors subtle strokes, Norris is clearly attracted to darkness, debauchery and decay, as seen in his productions of "Festen," "Cabaret" and even a sinister "Sleeping Beauty." His malevolent flamboyance is sometimes a distraction here, notably in the overworked, eerie soundscape of evil, reverberating laughter and poorly sung Handel. And the disintegration of the drapery in the final scene -- unraveling into a tangled web of ropes no doubt destined to ensnare the dissolute aristocracy -- is too obvious.
Considering it was constructed out of a novel of letters in which the duplicitous architects of the conflict are never even in the same room, this is a virtuoso display of dramatic structuring. The beauty of Hampton's work lies in the crispness of its cruelty (the Marquise's favorite word), the incisiveness of its epigrams and the piercing understanding of its characters. The language itself is sufficiently rich and vivid that it requires no illustrative tricks.
One visual flourish that really does work, however, is in Katrina Lindsay's stunning costumes. Pairing opulent elegance with lived-in movability, the clothes stick mainly to a palette of muted golds, ivories, blacks and silvers until Merteuil appears in dusty scarlet to receive news of the kill, her malice fully unsheathed for the first time. It might be the oldest dramatic device in the costumer's handbook, but nothing declares war like a blood-red battle uniform.