Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Dangerous Doings On-Stage
at Shakespeare Theatre

Tamarie Tunie and Gareth Saxe
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Christopher Hampton's longish, talky kaleidoscopic 1985 stage adaptation of the 1782 epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos, is being presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in a good looking, well acted production.

The setting is pre-Revolution Paris. La Marquise de Merteuil (Tamara Tunie) enlists her former lover and co-conspirator in treachery, La Vicomte de Valmont, to avenge a wrong done to them by the unseen Gercourt, who has seduced a lover of Valmont while in the midst of a liaison with Merteuil. Valmont is to put the horns on Gercourt by seducing his intended, the 15-year-old virginal Cecile Volanges (Erin Partin). However, Valmont, feeling Cecile too unchallenging and uninteresting a victim ("humiliating, if you fail; commonplace, if you succeed"), is more intrigued by the virtuous, married La President (Madame) de Tourvel (Roxanna Hope).

To make a long and debauchery-laden story short, Merteuil, who despite her icy cruelty truly has strong feelings for Valmont, is stricken to the quick when Valmont, sacre bleu, actually falls in love with Tourvel. When Valmont refuses Merteuil's demand that he give her up, Merteuil manipulates matters in order to exact a terrible revenge. In lieu of the comeuppance, which Merteuil receives in the original Laclos (the publication of her letters), Hampton powerfully and cleverly concludes matters with a reminder that she and her fellow aristocrats will in short order fall under the blade of la guillotine.

Christopher Hampton's script contains any number of clever and witty lines. Tamara Tunie sharply delivers one which illuminates Merteuil's resentment at the inferior position of women which fuels much of her cruelty: "A few words from a man can destroy a woman. A woman's revelations only enhance a man's reputation." However, in choosing to present a plethora of off stage events through expository dialogue, Hampton's adaptation develops a pervasive case of the languors making the three hour play a tough slough. Despite some bright dialogue, a provocative plot, a sharp ending, and good performances and direction, it is the languors which predominate for much of the evening.

In 1987, The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hampton's Liaisons was produced at the Music Box Theatre, and received seven Tony Award nominations. Yet it only managed a run of 149 performances.

Tamara Tunie delivers the goods as Merteuil. She singes us with the hot crackle of her dialogue, and, despite her calculating, perfidious monstrousness, Tunie most strongly touches our emotions by displaying the depth of Merteuil's pain.

Gareth Saxe is Valmont. Appropriately not quite a match for Tunie, Saxe is appealing in emphasizing, perhaps overemphasizing, Valmont's impetuous warmth. Roxanna Hope is an ideally beguiling Tourvel. Erin Partin is right on target in conveying Cecile's puerility.

Other solid contributions are made by Angela Reed as Cecile's foolish mother, Jared Zeus as Chevalier, and Elizabeth Shepherd as Valmont's aunt, and Gardner Reed as Emilie.

STNJ Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte has directed smoothly, drawing fine performances from her cast. The production likely would benefit from swifter transitions from scene to scene. Marion Williams' various scenic elements, dominated by lush curtains lighted to appear gold or green (occasionally with a touch of purple), are repeatedly re-arranged as we move from setting to setting. The pleasing and flattering period costumes are the work of Kim Gill.

In 1959, Roger Vadim's film version of Liaison starring Jeanne Moreau reset the story in its present day. Since the premiere of Hampton's adaptation, there have been three American film versions (Stephen Frears' version of the Hampton play; Milos Forman's Valmont; and the updated Cruel Intentions). In 2003 alone, there was an updated international TV miniseries with Catherine Deneuve, a Korean film version, a new adaptation by Gils Havergal at the American Conservatory Theatre, and a stage musical adaptation at the Barrington Theatre Company starring Sara Ramirez and Christopher Innvar. Currently (after its premiere in Japan), Adam Cooper's new dance-drama version is debuting at Sadler's Wells in London. This list is by no means exhaustive.

Looking past its initially controversial reception and lurid events, it remains easy to understand the enduring interest which artists of the stage, cinema and ballet have evinced toward Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The selfish and sometimes deliberate cruelty of sexual predators who play at love (most commonly, but certainly not exclusively, men) is ever present in human society. Deep, and sometimes dark, emotions from within the heart and soul of even the most seemingly callous do at times emerge. The fragile nature of the human psyche ensures that such emotions and behaviors will always exist, even in such sexually permissive and putatively liberated circles as exist today.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses continues performances through July 24, 2005 (Tues. 7:30 PM; Wed.-Sun. 8 PM; Sat. 2 PM; Sun 2 & 8 PM (no perf. 7/24 Eve.) at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton, adapted from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos; directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Cast: (in order of appearance)
La Marquise de Merteuil .......... Tamara Tunie
Madame de Volanges .......... Angela Reed
Cecile, her daughter .......... .Erin Partin
Major-Domo .......... Nathan Kaufman
Le Vicomte de Valmont .......... Gareth Saxe
Azolan, Valmont's valet .......... Michael R. Pauley
Madame de Rosemonde .......... Elizabeth Shepherd
La President de Tourval .......... Roxanna Hope
Emilie, a courtesan .......... Gardner Reed
Le Chevalier Danceny .......... Jared Zeus
Footmen .......... Monal Pathak, Jason Purdy
Adele .......... Suzanne Watts

Photo: Gerry Goodstein

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