Cracks in the plaster — literal and figurative — abound in Josie Rourke’s entertaining revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Soon, the chandeliers and candles descend, turning the stage into a glorious, ochre and rose-colored wonderland. But in our first glimpse of the stage, the paintings are unframed, the walls are decaying, and some of the furniture is crated. Tarps hang sloppily here and there… and (God help us) there’s even some magic-free, overhead fluorescent lighting.
Layering contemporary and historic images is a common device among European directors (Rourke leads London’s Donmar Warehouse, where this production originated). Usually, it’s a signal that the work will be deconstructed and ironized. In this case, though, the contemporary gestures are merely a frame, never fully worked through.
Still, Rourke does have an odd take on Liaisons. The play — Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel — is usually seen as a distillation of exquisite, toxic artifice. Given the first images here, you might think (as I did) that the director wants to explode that sense of pretty falseness.
Well, she does… sort of. But it’s more complicated than that. What Rourke seems to want is to subvert the archness of Liaisons — and dine out on it, too.
It’s an untenable position that leads to some strange directorial choices, including fussy scene shifts where the cast sing(!) ornamental diddles; portraying the character of Cécile Volanges, meant to be a sweet, naïve teenager, as an imbecile; and generally over-pointing the comedy. (It doesn’t help that Hampton’s script is cruder and less elegant than remembered, and includes too many cheap jokes.)
None of this wrecks Liaisons Dangereuses, which here is also well-staged and well-played, but it does compromise it. You may well wonder what, exactly, is so dangereuse about it: the audience laughed (albeit a little uneasily) at some pretty horrifying stuff, and only one moment — the cad Valmont grabbing his conquest, Madame de Tourvel, by her hair —seemed to provoke genuine shock.
Still, it’s in many ways an accomplished, even gripping production. For me, Liev Schreiber’s Valmont is the revelation. On paper, he is bizarre casting (and I should say that some of the reviews weren’t enthusiastic). He’s sexy for sure, but brutish and unaristocratic. His features are thick, his eyes heavy-lidded and sleepy — with the five o’clock shadow he wears here, he might be Ray Donovan in a costume.
But Schreiber’s classic training shows in a myriad of ways, while there’s also an unpredictable energy that makes every scene feel like it’s the first time. At the performance I saw, Schreiber seemed uncharacteristically hoarse, perhaps from a cold — it made his voice sound oddly similar to Richard Burton’s, and made me realize that he, like Burton, imprints his historical characters with an invigorating sense of contemporary maleness.
As the Marquise de la Merteuil, Valmont’s unholy ally, Janet McTeer gives a more conventional reading, emphasizing the languid posturing of the character. But McTeer is a superb technician, and it’s a detailed, fully-realized portrait, sparkling with glamour, but also fueled by rage. There’s a lovely supporting performance by Mary Beth Peil as Vamont’s elderly aunt. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen is a breathtakingly beautiful Mme. de Tourvel, though the presence and confidence she exudes feels odd for the character.
But really, with two Broadway revivals in less than a decade, Liaisons Dangereuses is overexposed, and the charms of Hampton’s script are fainter than remembered. Watching the opening scene, with McTeer and Schreiber looking like a Fragonard dream and acting the hell out of their bitchy conversation, I fantasized about the next Liaisons revival. Maybe Rosanne Barr and John Goodman, seated on folding lawn chairs in front of a trailer, holding cans of Budweiser. (Don’t change a word of the dialogue.)
Now that’s an alternative reading I could go for.
Liaisons Dangereuses plays at the Booth Theatre in New York through January 8th. For more information, visit the production website.