Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 1, 2008
Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton. From the novel by Choderlos de Laclos. Directed by Rufus Norris. Set design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Katrina Lindsay. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Paul Arditti. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Voice and speech coach Deborah Hecht. Fight director Rick Sordelet. Cast: Laura Linney, Ben Daniels, with Sian Phillips, Jessica Collins, Mamie Gummer, Kristine Nielsen, Benjamin Walker, Rosie Benton, Derek Cecil, Kevin Duda, Delphi Harrington, Tim McGeever, Nicole Orth-Pallavicini, Jane Pfitsch.
The demonic duo of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont not only make the second circle of hell a prime vacation spot - they make the American Airlines this spring's must-visit theater. As given statuesque body and searing voice by Laura Linney and Ben Daniels, they also emit enough sparks to send most city fire marshals running for their lives.
Just don't expect to warm too much to these denizens of late 18th-century France. In his enveloping production, Rufus Norris has not made the neophyte's mistake of giving you any opportunity to sympathize with the Marquise and the Vicomte. Linney and Daniels are as cold and unyielding as meter-thick blocks of ice, making their tendencies to melt in each other's gaze even more exciting - and devastating when they start looking in other directions. For them, love and sex aren't mere weapons, but tactical nuclear devices.
That neither sees them as anything but toys, thus turning their many dalliances into the rarefied equivalent of hunting people for sport, is the coruscating conceit of Hampton's adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos's scandalous 1782 epistolary novel. First seen on these shores 21 years ago, in an imported Royal Shakespeare Company production starring Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, this story of erotic one-upmanship has captivated live as well as in a number of film adaptations ranging from the faithful (Dangerous Liaisons, 1988, starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich) to the questionable (Cruel Intentions, 1999, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe).
For the full impact, however, you must return to the source. Not just because you need some sense of immediate opulence, though you do - the open hints of elegance, in both the sets and costumes, are vital to understanding that you're in danger specifically because you're dealing not with unarmed amateurs but ammo-laden aristocrats. (Scott Pask's black-box-meets-mirrored-salon set, and Katrina Lindsay's restrained but titillating costumes meet the requirements nicely.) But to be sidelined by the play's insinuating anti-charm, you must be confronted at close distance with the lackadaisical evil these two wield with such facility.
A boredom with their rote existences inspires the Marquise and the Vicomte on their endless rounds of bed-hopping - to say nothing of the possibility that the Marquise might again grant the Vicomte the opportunity to conquer her if succeeds in the task she sets for him. His challenge: to halt the marriage of the young Cécile Volanges (Mamie Gummer) to her unsuitable tutor, Danceny (Benjamin Walker) by any lurid means necessary. His dream: to win and keep the prudish Madame Tourvel (Jessica Collins).
Whether actual feelings ever creep into view, from any angle, Hampton leaves deliberately and deliciously vague; Norris and his two perfectly matched costars barely dare to speculate further. Whenever a teardrop of earnestness forms at the Vicomte's eye, or a faint crack appears in the Marquise's desire to enact the expected strait-laced role in public while pulling countless sexual strings in private, it's quickly replaced by a newfound resolve the maintain the chosen path.
Norris's sleek, slick staging is a sharper and more intimate version of his black-box rendition of Festen a few seasons back, a sumptuous nightmare boudoir of unfurling bedsheets and candlelit cavorting (the supernatural lighting design is by Donald Holder). But though it pointedly emphasizes the suffocating detachment with which the Marquise and Vicomte approach their games, it's in watching their drowning from the inside out that Linney and Daniels score their most piercing thrusts and ignite their deepest passions.
Daniels is even more captivating as the lothario with whom she's conspiring. He's envisioned the Vicomte as the ultimate social chameleon, in one scene impish and innocent and later slyly violent - a whole fleet of womanizers rolled into one. His greasy grin is both toothsome and loathsome, belying and betraying the monster beneath, and making his lie-weaving all the more convincing. But it's his face, rising and falling with each new success or setback, that confuses most, offering little suggestion of what's truly going on behind. Is even he immune to his deceits? Perhaps Daniel's greatest accomplishment is that it eventually becomes impossible to know for certain.
The other roles satisfy less only because they're less juicy, but Gummer's anxious enthusiasm and Collins's taunting looks and manner held behind walls of false propriety provide outstanding obstacles for the live-wrecking leads to topple. Walker, Rosie Benton as one of the Vicomte's ongoing (and for-pay) assignations, and Siân Phillips as Tourvel's eagle-eyed protector fit snugly into the evening's breath-constricting spirit. Only Kristine Nielsen, as Cécile's mother, is out of place, her fidgety flightiness completely at odds with the elevated station she must represent.
That contrast is crucial, because you must be reminded that the malefactors at play here aren't the lowest of the low, but the aristocrats around whom the walls of revolution are very shortly to crumble. That they think nothing of putting real hearts and souls on the line is all you need to know about who they are, what they deserve, and where they're headed. But if the Marquise and the Vicomte thrill to sacrificing living beings to the unforgiving gods of entertainment, New Yorkers have it much easier: All they must do is visit this engrossing Les Liaisons Dangereuses.