The men’s britches are suitably tight, and the women’s bosoms suitably heaving, so why does the Broadway adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, instead of feeling like a wickedly sexy and immoral human card game, feel airless? Where’s the thrill: theirs and ours?
Languorously paced over two hours and forty five minutes, and without the benefit of cinematic close-ups and jittery pace—as in Stephen Frears’ 1988 adaptation starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich and Roger Kumble’s snazzy Cruel Intentions (1999), which updated the action to New York prep school—this Donmar Warehouse-transplanted production, directed by Josie Rourke, must rely more on the text.
These words, adapted from Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s original 1782 novel, amount to a confetti of exposition and self-congratulatory scheming—where so-and-so will be seduced, when, and how; and ooh, how wicked we are—which shifts too quickly from zesty and slick to stodgy and repetitive.
These words are spoken not in French, or French aristo-adjacent, but in cut-glass British accents (the universal language of aristo, clearly)—with Valmont’s male page Azolan (Josh Salt) inevitably kind-of-Cockney.
As Nathan Lane does with similar poison-drenched relish in The Front Page, Janet McTeer at least has oodles of fun, and we with her, as the Marquise de Merteuil, who—with a bedrock of bitterness against her ex, the Comte de Gercourt—sharpens her surreptitious plotting on his young, beyond-virginal fiancée Cécile Volanges (a breathy, flighty Elena Kampouris) and Cécile’s beloved, Le Chevalier Danceny (Raffi Barsoumian), whose wide-eyed trustingness is ripe to be abused.
McTeer flutters and sidles in and out of rooms, sighs and eyerolls at platitudes and impediments, and has an over-stuffed suitcase of zingers and putdowns. She is wonderful, malevolent company.
Her accomplice, Le Vicomte de Valmont, is played by Liev Schreiber, and instead of Malkovich’s lizard-like, decadent fop or Ryan Philippe’s metrosexual man-slut, we have a lugubrious, jaded dandy who sounds and looks a lot like Nigel Farage.
Farage, the recently reinstalled temporary leader of UKIP and prime mover behind the Brexit campaign in the UK, has been recently in the United States stoking the ego of Donald Trump, who in turn is fond to cite the success of Farage’s campaign, even though Farage was rejected by mainstream political campaigners for Brexit, and has no role in the Brexit transition himself.
Schreiber’s Valmont too feels like a busted flush, even when he is playing the game. He seems hangdog, not sneering, low energy and cautious when he should, at least early on, be surveying rooms with beady, acquisitive eyes and lascivious intent.
The stakes are so low for the chief players—the Marquise will sleep with Valmont again, she says, if he successfully screws Madame de Tourvel; she also wants him to seduce Cécile—because they are so good at their game that there is not much value seeing them play that game, then boast about doing so.
If the winners are guaranteed at the outset, and if their personal peril seems minimal until very late, then the central dramatic tease becomes impossibly lengthened, and we are left with a lot of practical planning and wordplay—elegant, for sure—and those britches and bosoms.
The chinks in the arch-schemers’ armor are fatally sourced in that which they seek to perverse: love. For all her maneuvering, the Marquise is in love with Valmont. For all his intention to violate the chaste Madame de Tourvel (a nuanced, moving and poised performance by Brigitte Hjort Sørensen), Valmont falls in love with her.
Around this toxic tangle swirl screeds of letter writing, letter receiving, and a lot of to-ing and fro-ing from Parisian salons and country houses with hovering guardians (Mary Beth Peil as Madame de Rosemonde, Valmont’s aunt, is a lovely mix of lived wisdom and squirrelly enquiry).
But the set design for this adaptation remains as static and stubbornly unmoving as the text. Instead of the lush decoration of the film adaptations, the walls of this Broadway adaptation are cracked and distempered, alluding presumably to the moral universe of the play and the moral turpitude of its principals.
Portraits lie on their side in the corner, the furniture has seen better days. Only the costumes, and five glittering chandeliers which rise and descend, carry any sense of luxe. Nothing signals movement or a change of location, bar the moving of a chaise longue and chairs. A mournful, warning all-female chorus of otherwise-mute servants heralds the changes of scenes.
When the play orbits around Valmont’s sexual conquering of Cécile and Madame de Tourvel, what once might have seemed like a witty libidinal chase becomes inevitably interpreted by modern eyes through the prism of consent, rape, and sexual assault, especially when Valmont makes his move on the much-younger Cécile.
Emilie (Katrina Cunningham), a courtesan, is literally used as an object by Valmont, a table on which he composes a letter. (A chilling laugh she gives on encountering Madame de Tourvel is more cruel than any words can say.)
Indeed, Schreiber’s staid Valmont has an air of the sexual Donald Trump about him, his alleged past misdeeds preceding him, his sexuality forcibly at bay, and his reputation and character its own swamp which is impossible to drain.
That, of course, Valmont recognizes and always has, which may explain Schreiber’s decision to play the character as so mordantly self-aware throughout.
McTeer’s performance pays a richer dividend, both coolly camp and later piercingly tragic—not that she will ever show any weakness.
The pile-up of self-awareness, contrition, tragedy, and regret at the end happens so quickly its impact feels fleeting. Ultimately, these liaisons seem more tedious than dangerous.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street; tickets on sale through January 22, 2017.