Volume 21, Number 1 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | May 16 - 22, 2008

Ben Daniels and Laura Linney in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”

18th century tale of seduction and intrigue

By Christopher Hampton
Directed by Rufus Norris
Through July 6
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
(212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org)

By Scott Harrah

One will not find a tale about debauchery, vice, lies, deceit, and upper class decadence as florid and poetic as Christopher Hampton’s 1986 adaptation of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” The 18th century tale of conniving French aristocrats is based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel that was made into a hit Hollywood movie starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich.

This Broadway revival of the drama—originally produced on the New York stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company back in 1987—features a predominantly American cast, with the exception of British actor Ben Daniels as the womanizing Le Vicomte de Valmont, and Welsh thespian Sian Phillips as his aunt, Madame de Rosemonde. The major box-office draw of the show is all-American actress and multiple Oscar nominee Laura Linney as the scheming La Marquise de Merteuil.

On the surface, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” appears at first to be a mere costume drama about naughty aristocrats behaving badly but it’s really a complicated, intelligent game of sexual chess and cerebral subterfuge. It holds all the elements of gothic romance: wealthy characters, gloriously dressed, in pursuit of pleasure and sexual conquest, with a superb cast that is deftly directed by Rufus Norris.

Although Ben Daniels hardly has conventional matinee-idol looks, he has the charisma and appeal that makes his role as a conniving heartbreaker and rogue believable. He has all the physical posturing of an 18th century upper crust ladies’ man; he bends his knees and smothers his women with swooning affection, exuding all the charm of a virile nobleman. Daniels also delivers Hampton’s elegant dialogue convincingly, and that’s a crucial necessity in a play as talky and verbose as this.

It’s unfortunate that the normally excellent Laura Linney’s performance is not as strong as that of Daniels. Linney has all the requisite icy mannerisms of La Marquise de Merteuil down well, but her delivery lacks the forceful venom needed to show what a cruel, mean-spirited character the woman is supposed to be. Linney seems far too American and too “white bread” for the role of a haughty French aristocrat.

The plot of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” revolves around the insane things Le Vicomte will do to win the love of his longtime friend La Marquise. He pursues Cecile Volanges (Mamie Gummer), a convent girl he’s forced into seducing, much to the disgust of her mother Madame de Volanges (Kristine Nielsen, playing one of her usual hysterical characters). Le Vicomte voraciously goes after the pious, beautiful La Presidente de Tourvel (wonderfully played by Jessica Collins), a woman with whom he falls deeply and tragically in love. Benjamin Walker, as the young lover Le Chevalier Danceny, is especially effective in a final, violent swordfight scene between himself and the Le Vicomte.

Katrina Lindsey’s costumes are lavish and help bring the 1780s to glorious life. Unfortunately, Scott Pask’s utilitarian, dark set, featuring numerous mirrors, glass doors and 18th century French furniture, all lit by a huge, candle-laden chandelier, is not much of a visual anchor for the play. The placement of curtains helps the scenes change from Madame La Marquise’s salon to various bedrooms and châteaux in and around Paris. Donald Holder’s lighting also makes scenes fade into the next, giving the show a bit of a Hollywood touch.

“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is a complex story of aristocratic sexual machinations with dark consequences in pre-Revolutionary France that is intricately crafted, beautifully written and enormously entertaining, with enough seduction, betrayal and intrigue in its many plot twists— and some great performances—to make it more compelling for modern audiences than most period pieces.




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