When La Marquise de Merteuil (Tamara Tunie) greets her niece Cecile (Erin Partin) with "Well, my dear, so you’ve left the convent for good," at the beginning of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," one can only guess from Tunie’s faint smirk what she has in store for the young innocent. In the first of the play’s 18 short yet eventful scenes, the stage is dressed to evoke a late 18th century salon. Languid gold drapes framing elegant decor (the artistry of designer Marion Williams) that are shifted and moved about during the course of the action with the help of house servants. The production’s handsome design exposes salons and boudoirs with a maximum (that’s the word) of fuss that actually takes on a life of its own and serves the play as a seductively unnerving force in its own right, and almost as much as the sexual abandon going on within it.
But why go on about the extraordinary way the movement of the settings conspire to agitate 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.
The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey production of Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play, based on the 1779 novel (first published in 1782) by Choderlos de Laclos, takes no bones about its desire to titillate, tantalize, and torment its viewers (voyeurs?). The sexual exploits of a vengeful Marquise, aided by her equally depraved ex-lover, the Vicomte de Valmont (Gareth Saxe) are so sinisterly and compulsively dramatized that the entertainment’s effect for some may be as close to revulsion as to pleasure.
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 exquisite direction of Bonnie J. Monte, these decadent aristocrats, with their voracious sexual appetites and unconscionable motivations, clearly seen as the archetypes of today’s power-obsessed and manipulative corporate and governmental heads, are fluidly and erotically maneuvered from conquest to conquest.
As the liaisons moved from the settee to the lounge to the bed, I sat back, comfortable, knowing I was in for three hours of what is known today as "safe sex." If I can admit that I found the evening a trifle repellent, I must also confess that the performances and production could not have been more compelling or bold. Saxe, who impressed me last year playing opposite Francis Sternhagen in Echoes of War at the Mint Theater, could easily have fallen into the trap of oozing and leering his way through his role as the insidious debaucher whose only appeal is "It’s beyond my control." Instead, he is disquietingly disarming and thus right on the mark. The Marquise, consumed with jaded amorality is also costumed to the brocaded nines by designer Kim Gill. As the self-described "virtuoso of deceit" in these crimes of the heart, Tunie plays the part to soul-decaying perfection.
The taunting encounters and 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. The charming Partin is terrific evolving from a naive convent girl to eager disciple d’amour, and Roxanna Hope is quite as inscrutable as she is fascinating as the disturbed, infatuated Mme. 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 Michael R. Pauley, as the Vicomte’s spying valet. Other fine performances are given by Angela Reed, as Cecile’s gullible mother, Elizabeth Shepherd, as the Vicomte’s world-weary aunt, and Gardner Reed, 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 expected from the theater’s most famous fight director Rick Sordelet, he has choreographed a remarkably realistic and bloody climactic duel. They all find favor under the glow of Steven Rosen’s atmospheric lighting. 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 21st century she is prophetically addressing.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, through July 24, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. $27 to $49. 973-408-5600 or visit www.shakespearenj.org
A Child’s Guide to Innocence
Three generations of three Italian-American women are explored with no apologies to unabashed sentimentality in "A Child’s Guide to Innocence," a sweetly detailed, if only occasionally involving, memory play by Vincent Sessa. Under the resourceful direction of Dana Benningfield, three actresses have the task of playing all the roles in the three scene 90- minute play. All the action takes place in and above the family grocery store in Brooklyn during three eras: 1944, 1975, and 1995. Although the author is male, a second-generation Italian-American, with roots in Sicily and raised in Brooklyn, we may presume that he is identifying with specific family members – most particularly the central character of Francesca (Catherine Eaton), who plays herself during the course of the play. Her sisters in the first scene are played by Corey Tazmania and Deborah Baum, who subsequently play Francesca’s daughters and granddaughters.
We first meet Francesca in 1995 in a short monologue in which she is old, but not old looking, remembering a life-altering moment with her sisters. Her memory takes us back to 1944, just before D-Day. Francesca, now called Francie, is 21. Together with vivacious 19 year-old Catherine (Tazmania), and the frail 17 year-old Marion (Baum), they have stopped working in the store to wait for news of their brother Johnny who has been reported lost at sea. Francie is also worried because she hasn’t received a letter recently from Freddie, the young soldier she met at a dance. Devoutly religious, the sisters’ faith buoys them through this episode, as does their girlish chatter.
In 1975, Frances is 52 and has her hands full with her married daughters Joan (Tazmania), Marilyn (Baum). They are making it difficult for their still extremely traditional mother to deal with their collective issues such as inter-faith marriage, political activism, divorce, and the disclosure of a long suppressed family secret. In the final scene, the granddaughters visit their dying grandmother, whose thoughts weave throughout the girl’s reflections of what happened to the family over the past 20 years.
Eaton, whose impressive emotional range and expressive face drives her character through the decades, has great support from both the Tazmania and Baum, who have the added task of becoming others of various endearments. Perhaps it is the ordinary trials, changes, life and death that occurred in one family that inspired this warmly considered play. But, in the end, when the girls begin to ask for keepsakes, we may also ask what is it that we get to take away except for a vague understanding of Francesca’s philosophy: "Knowing is the only innocence."
"A Child’s Guide to Innocence," through August 14, New Jersey Repertory Theater Company at the Lumia Theater, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. $30. 732-229-3166 or E-mail: email@example.com.