By Karen Isaacs
I was looking forward to the revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses now at the Booth Theater on Broadway until Jan. 22. After all, it brings Janet McTeer back to Broadway. McTeer gave us a superb Nora in The Doll’s House in 1997 winning a Tony in the process.
Plus Liev Shriber is playing opposite her, He’s an actor known for his skill and magnetism.
Yet, this production seemed flabby and lacking the tension that it needs.
This play adapted by Christopher Hampton from the original French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, first published in 1792. The novel has been the source for numerous films, several plays, an opera and a ballet among other works.
It is a story of revenge, manipulation and the use of seduction, sex and love as weapons set in the decades before the French revolution. Le Marquise de Merteuil is a mature woman who views sex as both a game and a weapon. She delights in both seduction and in plotting the seduction of others and is very willing to spread the news. Yet while her reputation is at least suspected, people confide in her and trust her.
Equally debouched is Le Viacomte de Valmont, her off-again-on-again lover who also delights in seduction. The play revolves around Le Marquise’s plot to deflower Cécile, the just-from-the convent daughter of a friend and she wants Valmont to seduce the girl. Valmont may be willing, but he plans to seduce Madame de Tourvel, a very religious and virtuous married woman. He views Cécile, who is to be married to one of Le Marquise’s former lovers, as too easy a target. Cécile on the other hand is enthralled with Danceny, a rather awkward young man.
Let us just say that the seductions go on and on, with Le Marquise and Valmont figuratively dueling and manipulating not only the two women and Danceny but also each other. The results are disastrous for all.
For this play to work effectively, you must feel the malice and amorality emanating across the footlights. Le Marquise must radiate sexual rapaciousness as well as steeliness. She is cold and manipulative; this is all just a game for her own amusement. But she must also be seductive, attractive and give a veneer of caring and consideration. You should realize that perhaps this is all a manipulation of Valmont because of either a denied affection or revenge because he has moved beyond her. Valmont is not quite equal in this game; he must seem to have a tiny bit more of a heart.
With such a promising cast, it seems that director Josie Rourke has let concept overtake the play itself. The stage is bare and modern when the play opens and throughout much of the production, cast members are in stylized movement and sounds which slows down the pace. The set is meant to epitomize all that is wrong with the ancient regime with peeling walls and covered furniture in the opening. All this really does is add length to an already full-length play. It ran nearly three hours the night I saw it.
The cast also struggles. McTeer does not let us see the Le Marquise who others trust and confide in even though her reputation as a sexual predator is also known. She is so viperish that you wonder why anyone who tell her anything or trust anything she says.
Schreiber is an even bigger disappointment. Is he just uncomfortable in the period costumes – breeches and wigs? The magnetism that you expect from his stage performances is totally lacking. Though he goes through the motions of the seductions, he is more like a school boy playing at it than a man of the world with an equally tarnished reputation.
Birgitte Hjort Sørensen is very good as the virtuous wife, Madame de Tourvel who tries
desperately to resist Vallmont’s attentions and her own attraction to him. She is the one character who seems totally worthy of our sympathy.
Elena Kampouris plays the innocent Cécile who once seduced (raped?) takes to sexual adventures like a fish takes to water. The transition from the prim and reserved convent girl to the young woman with a rapacious sexual appetite is difficult to make; Kampouris does a good job.
The rest of the cast is hampered by not only the slowness of the production but also by the sometimes arch dialogue.
Mark Henderson’s lighting design is the one production element that really seems to add to the production.
Les Liaisons Danereuses is at the Booth Theater, 222 W. 45th Street through Jan. 22. I just wish it were better. Tickets are available through telecharge.