Based on a novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, published in 1782 and turned into an award-winning play by Christopher Hampton 200 years later, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is back on Broadway to celebrate its 30th anniversary onstage. This sexy romp about decadent, amoral French aristocrats in the days before the Revolution who have nothing better to do with their boredom than eat cake and wreak havoc on each others’ bedroom antics still sniffs of controversy, but in the tame new production at the Booth starring Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber, the attitude is there but the leer is gone.
He plays Vicomte de Valmont, a shameless hedonist who uses and discards his sexual conquests for his own sadistic pleasure. She is the Marquise de Merteuil, his former lover, and a ruthless schemer who manipulates men in much the same way. “I was born to dominate your sex,” she tells Valmont, “and avenge my own.” Her latest attempt to prove it begins when she summons Valmont for a bit of mischief. Furious because her most recent dalliance has left her to marry an innocent, convent-raised 15-year-old virgin named Cecile Volanges, she asks Valmont to avenge her damaged reputation by seducing the girl and destroying her purity before the wedding. Valmont, however, has already set his beady eyes on a chaste, beautiful and deeply religious married woman, Madame de Tourvel. Thus he hatches his own plan to ravage two ladies in bed instead of one and revel in the excitement of watching them betray their values and high-minded moral ideals in the throes of ecstasy. If he succeeds at both tasks, he demands a reward—an evening in bed with the Marquise herself, for old times’ sake. And so they strike a heinous bargain steeped in heartless cruelty and the audience makes its own bet to see how many viewers can sit through it. At the critics preview I attended, the empty seats after intermission indicated how many members of that audience didn’t make it.
The long, tiresome and relentlessy talky first act of this three-hour production is about how the two unscrupulous villains put the plan they hatch into motion. Act Two focuses on what happens after they succeed, when their seductions backfire, they get their comeuppance, and everyone comes to a bad end. I’ve seen excellent productions of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, including five movies. This is not one of them. Prissy-mouthed Alan Rickman weakened the original stage import from London. The 1988 film by Stephen Frears was ruined by the deadly performance of the disastrously miscast John Malkovich, who played the dashing Valmont as a fey, whining bore who was no match for Glenn Close’s Merteuil. That character finally came to throbbing, passionate life when a dazzling Colin Firth leaped into the role in Milos Forman’s 1989 film adaptation, Valmont, opposite a ravishing Annette Bening.
In the current reprise, Christopher Hampton’s elegant prose is not well served by a cast that either rushes through the dialogue or swallows it like candy from the concession stand. Both stars seem handcuffed by their roles. They’re not physical, sexy, or powerful enough. To hear McTeer’s mannered, accented English sounds phony and often unintelligible, and to see the rough and rowdy Schreiber posing seductively on chaise longues in powdered wigs and silk dressing gowns just looks silly. The narrowing of his eyes and her frozen smiles say more about their characters than all of the spoken words strewn together, and even more about the games of debauchery and intrigue they play at the expense of people around them. When the two of them are alone together onstage, they match each other word for word in their arch exchanges, turning conversations into a wicked game of chess. But the rest of the cast, under Josie Rourke’s uneven direction, is sorely lacking in gusto. Most of them are too busy grappling with fraudulent accents to seem genuine. Worst of all is a Danish actress imported from London named Birgitte Hjort Sorensen as Madame Tourvel, who renders incoherent the exposition scenes where she wrestles with her ideals before succumbing to Vamont’s advances. I also don’t understand why, in Tom Scutt’s otherwise elaborately appointed sets, accented by five descending chandeliers, the rich and leisurely French haut monde lives in interiors where the walls are crumbling, the paint is peeling, and the plaster is cracked. If this conceit is a visual metaphor for the inner decadence gnawing at the center of the moral turbulence within the characters themselves, then it reflects everything else about the current revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses—malicious, diverting, and a big disappointment.