The Roundabout Theatre Company’s ravishing revival of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” the 1985 play by Christopher Hampton that he based on the 1779 novel (first published in 1782) by Choderlos de Laclos, makes no bones about its desire to titillate and tantalize its viewers (voyeurs?). The sexual exploits of a vengeful Marquise de Merteuil (Laura Linney) and her equally depraved ex-lover, the Vicomte de Valmont (Ben Daniels), are so corrosively dramatized that the entertainment’s effect for some may be as close to dismay as it is to pleasure.
When La Marquise (Linney) greets her niece, Cecile Volange (Mamie Gummer) with “Well, my dear, so you’ve left the convent for good,” at the beginning of the play, one can only guess from Linney’s faint smirk what she has in store for the young innocent. For this evocative descent into 18th century desire and debauchery, the play’s short yet eventful scenes take place within an atmosphere fanned by deception and amongst a hanging display of contoured drapes on pulleys that impressively respond to the swiftly changing venues. Their contortions and configurations are as much a compliment to the artistic designs of set designer Scott Pask as they are important to the designs of the characters who often find themselves wrapped in them.
The production’s settings expose salons and boudoirs with a minimum of fuss and actually take on a life of their own. They serve the play’s focus on sexual abandon as a seductive force in its own right. But why go on about the extraordinary way the movement of the drapes and the gorgeous lighting design by Donald Holder conspire to entrap us, when it is the amoral deceptions and carnal intrigue that really get under our skin and that are soon to ruin more than a few of the characters, aside from the niece, into a climactic state of rack and ruin. If the Marquise herself is quick to admit near the end of the play that “pleasure without love leads to revulsion,” the revelation cannot, nor is it intended to, prevent a denouement of insanity, death, and irreversible moral decay.
Under the precisely deployed direction of Rufus Norris, these decadent aristocrats, with their voracious sexual appetites and unconscionable motivations, are clearly seen as the archetypes of today’s power-obsessed and manipulative corporate and governmental heads. Norris, who has directed more extensively in the UK than here, however, directed the under-appreciated “Festen” on Broadway. With “Les Liaisons” he gracefully balances the play’s pronounced eroticism and its amusing repartee. All the actors appear concertedly motivated by his vision as they go from conquest to conquest.
Daniels, who is making his Broadway debut but has been prominently cast in a number of Royal National Theatre and Donmar Warehouse productions, is splendid as the insidious debaucher whose only excuse for his behavior is “It’s beyond my control.” Without oozing and leering his way from one seduction to the next, Daniels instills an almost charming insouciance into his performance.
La Marquise, consumed with jaded amorality, is also costumed to the brocaded nines by designer Katrina Lindsay. I am surprised that Linney is given the same golden gown to wear throughout the play only changing into a scarlet one for the final scene. She proves absolutely captivating as the calculating “virtuoso of deceit.” Linney, who was wonderful as Abigail Adams and the life force behind the recent HBO series “John Adams,” complies with the overt demands of her soul-decaying role. She is an amazingly resourceful actress.
The taunting encounters and cynically calculated plotting between these two will leave you both chilled and aroused. It is to the playwright’s credit that the dialogue is neither too arch nor too classically remote. Hampton’s ingenious literary effort is to make each epigram, innuendo, double entendre, and nuance of speech resonate with contemporary immediacy. And the company demonstrates with ease a flair for his text. While the Vicomte admits, “It’s only the best swimmers who drown,” the innocent victims who are to be submerged in the lugubrious cesspool are legion. Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter) is a delight as Cecile, the naive convent girl who segues to eager disciple d’amour with the prerequisite number of screams and squeals, and Jessica Collins is as inscrutable as she is fascinating as the disturbed, infatuated La Presidente de Tourvel, a woman of unwavering morals and religious fervor.
The parallels of human exploitation in our own society are unmistakable. I especially liked the casually self-serving self-assurance of Derek Cecil, as the Vicomte’s spying valet. Other splendid performances are given by the delightfully quirky Kristine Nielsen, as Cecile’s gullible mother; Sian Phillips, as the Vicomte’s wise, world-weary aunt; and Rosie Benton, as a voluptuous courtesan who, in the play’s most erotic scene, allows her back to be used as a writing desk for the mounted Vicomte. As the liaisons move from the settee to the lounge to the bed, you can sit back, comfortable, knowing you are in for three hours of what is known today as “safe sex.” It is possible that some may find the play a trifle repellent, but it is, nevertheless, irresistibly seductive.
As expected from the theater’s most famous fight director Rick Sordelet, there is a remarkably realistic and bloody climactic duel. Even, as the Marquise states, in a moment of rare ennui, “The century is drawing to a close,” we can sense that it is really the current century she is prophetically addressing. Time flies when you are having fun. This is a considerably lighter and less sinister consideration of the play than was the original 1987 Broadway production. It has reappeared a little differently but no less as a stunning entertainment. HHH
— Simon Saltzman
“Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” through July 6, the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. $56.25 to $101.25. 212-719-1300.