Christopher Hampton’s play, Les Liasons Dangereuses, based on the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, a story presented through a series of the characters’ personal letters, was first published in four volumes in 1782. The Hampton play arrived on Broadway in 1987, when it enjoyed a successful run of 149 performances. A good deal of its success was due to the instant acceptance of Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan as its central characters. One might say it made international stars of both of them. It was later filmed with Glenn Close and John Malkovich and again its star power, with the addition of Michelle Pfeiffer in an important featured role, elicited excellent reviews and public approbation.
Now we have the recent London Donmar Warehouse version, directed by Artistic Director Josie Rourke, starring Janet McTeer in the role she played in London, with Liev Schreiber now her vis-a-vis and co-star. The current production is on Broadway and it has its virtues.
For starters, it has an interesting scenic concept, designed and costumed by Tom Scutt. The play, set in the autumn and winter of 1780, is played in a room that serves various salons and bedrooms as well as the countryside. The many scenes are separated by the quiet and effective use of servants who re-arrange furniture, light and extinguish the many candled chandeliers, and denude the decaying walls as the play progresses. Its characters are magnificently dressed in gowns they seem to change by the hour, and the men look dashing at all times. It all clearly establishes the lush world and its declne as the French Revolution beckoned from the other end of the decade. The current year in this, our own world, is brought to mind again and again, which makes the play frighteningly relevant. Its protagonists are described by members of the cast as “cannibals who are devouring each other” and “two sharks circling in a pool of innocents.”
The sharks are the formidable Marquise de Merteuil, and her ex-lover the Vicomte de Valmont, whose evil ways blend nicely to humiliate and destroy others, while boasting of their evil ways and pride in their solipsistic values. I was immediately intrigued by the closeness of the current situation as our country enters its most contentious election in its entire history.
Janet McTeer is luscious and quite magnificent in one gown after another that match her performance as queen bee of the society she inhabits and controls.
Liev Schreiber, a fine actor, seems at home in his fine clothes, but he seemed to me to be playing in a far more contemporary play in that his theatrical energy was very low, and it would seem to have been his intent to make the Vicomte more identifiable to today’s audience. To me, he succeeded only in playing a larger than life character realistically but almost inaudibly. Most of the rest of the company avoided that trap, and helped immeasurably to make the 2 hour 45-minute two act play less overstuffed.
Brigitte Hjort Sorenson brought vitality and style to Madame deTourvel, and Elena Kampouris gave adolescent life to the virgin Cecile Volanges (the about-to-be bride), who is the intended victim; but she, too, in her many scenes with Liev Schreiber, managed to make her hysterical delivery believable, but indecipherable. Josie Rourke’s otherwise impeccable direction might have been influenced by the far lesser size of the production’s original Donmar home in London, (it seats four rows of people on three sides of the stage) but it’s difficult to stay focused on a literate but wordy play that runs almost three hours when some of its dialogue is projected without energy.
Les Liasons Dangereuses plays through January 22, 2017, at The Booth Theatre – 222 West 45th Street, in New York City. For tickets, visit the box office, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or purchase them online
I found the material interesting enough to encourage me to see one of its previous productions. The film and the original production (on YouTube) are available and I’m intrigued enough to want to see what other fine actors have made of it. This one, limited to a run of 15 weeks, is worth while for a peek at what was going outside the gates at Versailles during the reign of Louis XVI and his bride Marie Antoinette. A lot of nasty people were roaming around, up to no good, not even their own.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.
Les Liasons Dangereuse plays through January 22, 2017, at The Booth Theatre – 222 West 45th Street, in New York City. For tickets, visit the box office, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or purchase them online.