I disagree with the critics who feel that Laura Linney has been miscast as the infamous sexual predator the Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Ms. Linney’s controversial performance in the erratic Roundabout revival is living very dangerously indeed. Its unyielding ice coldness is overstylized, riveting in both its originality and waywardness, and ultimately a self-negating mistake, like an experiment in the wrong venue. But which other actress on Broadway, I wonder, is as daring as Ms. Linney?
It’s glib to think that this fine actress who’s known for her unshowy emotional honesty is unsuitable for the role of Merteuil, the “virtuoso in deceit.” Ms. Linney’s scrubbed sanctimony in The Crucible is untypical of the more intriguing range of her work in the theater (Sight Unseen) and on film (Mystic River, You Can Count on Me). There’s no reason I can imagine why she can’t be emotionally honest playing a cow.
Cow is the polite c-word for the Marquise de Merteuil. The problem is that practically all emotion has been drained out of Ms. Linney’s performance.
She hasn’t been miscast, she’s been misdirected.
Rufus Norris’ revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses lurches from the ostentatiously starchy to the stylishly good to the heavy-handed and coarse. The British director’s overintellectualized idea of Merteuil has neutralized Ms. Linney’s emotional power to such an extent that she scarcely connects with the other actors onstage. There are long stretches when she doesn’t even look at anyone.
We’re meant to perceive her Merteuil as though she were a figure frozen in a painting.
ALL VERY WELL (and arty). Scott Pask’s elegant, unsurprising set with drapes and mirrors encourages such painterly narcissism. (The less refined emblem of the original 1986 staging was an unruly defiled bed.) But portraiture isn’t theater. It’s a director’s concept, and it’s out of sync with the rest of the production.
Given the courtly artifice and manners of the ancien régime in 18th-century France, doubtless Ms. Linney’s flawlessly mechanized stylization is historically correct. So, too, her studied, glacially slow walk or the unwaveringly precise manner in which she holds the fingers of her hands over her silk panier. But this is a Merteuil who has no fun with the games she plays.
In proto-feminist self-justification, she tells the Vicomte de Valmont—her sometime lover and unscrupulous partner in sexual conquest—“I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own.” Merteuil is a woman who can say that her favorite word isn’t betrayal, but cruelty. She’s undeniably heartless.
And mercilessly so in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel. But Christopher Hampton’s renowned stage adaptation makes Merteuil more emotionally ambiguous, while his screen version for the Stephen Frears movie starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close had her crack up when Valmont betrays their libertine pact and falls in love with his biggest conquest—the pious, married Madame de Tourvel. The opportunity is there for Ms. Linney’s bloodless Merteuil to be human!
Ben Daniels’ Valmont, on the other hand, is having far too much fun. The British actor does a lot of Fragonard-ing about the joint, too. That perfect aristocratic posture—the stockinged, shapely leg slightly bent in front of the other, the insolently arched back to the manner born (and so on). Mr. Daniels’ cheerfully depraved Valmont—a man “who never opens his mouth without calculating the harm he can do”—is looser and warmer than his co-conspirator. His shade-too-likable performance lacks insinuating danger.