Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Let's Talk About Sex (18th Century French Sex)

Review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber in the Donmar Warehouse revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses

There aren't many plays like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the highly verbal and erotic drama currently being revived at the Booth Theatre. Period costumes and flowery language help elevate this tale of calculated seduction in 18th century France, making a script where virtually every scene is about sex seem like one of the classiest plays around. And while there are some interesting ideas to be found hiding underneath the deliciously decadent dialogue, this import from London's Donmar Warehouse ultimately feels like more style than substance despite some truly compelling performances.

Playwright Christopher Hampton's 1987 drama - probably best known as the basis of the Oscar-winning film Dangerous Liaisons - centers around ex-lovers Le Marquis de Merteuil and Le Vicomte de Valmont, wealthy members of Paris' elite who entertain themselves by seducing others for sport. In an act of revenge, Merteuil has asked Valmont to seduce the virginal Cecile, who has been promised to the only man to ever to break off a relationship with Merteuil before she was ready to end it. But Valmont has his sights set on Madame de Tourvel, the strictly conservative wife of an absent husband. Merteuil and Valmont agree to help manipulate both women into compromising positions, while also having their own reasons for wanting to rekindle their own relationship (she seems to actually love Valmont, while he seems mostly interested in the sex).

It's a complex web of motivations which seem even more alien given the use of French titles in place of actual names, but Hampton's plotting is razor sharp and provides everything an attentive audience member needs to follow the action. It also helps to view the play with the assumption that practically every line of dialogue is intended as a double entendre, many of them dressed up by the playwright's wonderfully verbose dialogue. The characters may be French, but their command of the English language makes listening to them speak entertainment unto itself. If there is any fault to be found with Hampton's script, it's that he places the story's climax (pun very much intended) at the end of a rather long first act, which makes Act II feel more scattershot and less impactful by comparison.

The performances range from serviceable to very good indeed, with the divide being split almost entirely down gender lines. Tony-winner Janet McTeer is entrancing as Le Marquis de Merteuil, an incredibly complex and modern woman struggling against the social confines of her gender. McTeer's understanding of the power of stillness makes her an almost regal presence, with her expressive eyes conveying an immense amount of information behind Merteuil's carefully controlled visage. McTeer oozes sex appeal, and seeing her character turn that appeal on and off at will underscores how much Merteuil's considers her sensuality not just a source of pleasure, but a weapon. Watching McTeer peel back the various layers of her character is the most thrilling aspect of the evening, ultimately revealing a vulnerability that is quite tragic despite her sometimes monstrous actions. She's also quite funny, especially when the Marquis is forced to deal with those unable to keep up with her vast intellect, adding even more depth to a truly fascinating figure.

Liev Schreiber is more problematic as the womanizing Valmont. For an actor who has demonstrated immense sexiness in other roles, his lack of sex appeal in the role is not just disappointing but a detriment to the story. Valmont is constantly engaged in secret trysts with a whole host of characters, many of whom willing throw themselves at him, and without that kind of inescapable charisma it's difficult to comprehend exactly why everyone is so willing to bend to his every whim. Schreiber's choice to play Valmont as at least slightly intoxicated at all times doesn't help, although the decision is certainly justified by the large amount of stage business involving glasses of alcohol.

In supporting roles, Elena Kampouris provides welcome comic relief as the almost impossibly naive Cecile, and Mary Beth Peil makes the most of her limited scenes as Valmont's world weary aunt. But the true standout is Birgitte Hjort Sorensen making her Broadway debut as the intensely pious Madame de Tourvel. Sorensen's eyes and body language speak volumes, projecting an immense strength and inherent goodness that makes it appropriately difficult to watch her being seduced. You feel the pain her burgeoning attraction to Valmont causes her, and the character's eventually fate is perhaps the most moving aspect of the production.

Director Josie Rourke stages the piece with an eye towards the surreal, using highly choreographed scene changes combined with haunting original music by Michael Bruce to draw you into the bewitchingly exotic milieu. Tom Scutt's deconstructed set design, which reimagines the sprawling houses of the aristocracy as aging villas with exposed plaster and brick, further contributes to the otherworldly quality of the production. (Scutt also designed the ornate costumes.)

Those unfamiliar with Les Liaisons Dangereuses will find plenty to appreciate in this current revival, while at the same time probably becoming aware that it isn't always successful in realizing the lofty ambitions of the piece. Hampton's dialogue and his script are quite good, if a tad long by modern tastes, and this production has two truly captivating performances by Janet McTeer and Birgitte Hjort Sorensen. If only Liev Schreiber were able to match these two ladies' performances, this could be a truly electric production, rather than the entertaining but somewhat inconsequential one it is.

1 comment:

  1. Poor Liev Schreiber will probably have to skip going to the Golden Globes (where he's nominated for Ray Donovan), since this production closes on the day of the ceremony.