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New York City Theater

"Les Liaisons Dangereuses"
Booth Theater

There are better plays, but none more cruel than “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” Christopher Hampton’s version of Choderlos de Laclos’ notorious epistolary novel has been refashioned into a leisurely game of degradation in this latest revival.

Start with Tom Scutt’s stage design, which reinforces similarities between 18th-century France before the Revolution, and very much like what our own society has become. As fluorescent lights give way to candle chandeliers, as architectural styles clash amid peeling walls and tacky furniture, we’re in a decaying land upended by licentiousness and selfishness. Locations are minimally delineated; while reconfiguring paintings and furniture, the cast sings “oohs” merrily, even dementedly. It’s whistling past the graveyard.

The leading characters are a pair of cold-blooded aristocrats and former lovers. Mme. La Marquise de Merteuil and M. le Vicomte de Valmont preside over a failing civilization, among the instigators as well as the beneficiaries of a bigoted, corrupt, mocking society.

Merteuil and Valmont play a game of chicken, with betrayal vying with boredom. These are people with nothing better to do than take revenge and ruin lives. Games are what it’s all about, from the card games that open and close the evening, to Valmont’s idle flipping of playing cards into an urn (he misses more than he succeeds).

Merteuil wants Valmont to seduce 15-year-old Cécile, fresh out of a convent. That would exact revenge on a former lover who left her for the young virgin and expects to marry a “modest and respectable” woman. Valmont, however, has his eye on Mme de Tourvel, a famously moral, religious – and married -- woman. “What could possibly be more prestigious?” asks Valmont. “I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that’s most important to her.”

The danger in the play’s title is love. Seduction, yes. Betrayal, yes. Revenge, yes. But Love? Definitely not. “I always knew I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own,” says Merteuil who flirts only with men she intends to refuse. “To hope to be made happy by love is a certain cause of grief,” says Mme. Rosemonde, Valmont’s aunt.

It’s the upending of sentimentality that causes eventual destruction and death. Indifference is the rule in this war. Audiences may take sides, but those shift with every nuance.

As directed by Josie Rourke, little room is left for ambiguity. Her staging is controlled and careful, lacking bite. Yet spectators cannot help but be engaged by this deadly spectacle.

As Merteuil, Janet McTeer’s range of emotions is astonishing, embodying the phoniness of a woman who prepares one face for polite society while secretly diving into the depths of depravity. As Valmont, Liev Schreiber is a man who fears knowing himself, thus taking refuge in languid poses. Easily tempted by superficiality, he is his own undoing. The two expert actors are matched by Birgitte Hjort Sørenson’s conflicted Tourvel, Elena Kampouris’ nubile Cécile and Mary Beth Peil’s wise Rosemonde.

No one escapes unscathed. Uncovered is the eroticism that underlies even the most innocent-appearing events. Above all, don’t bring the kids.

--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 7, 2016

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