Tuesday, November 1, 2016

LIZ SMITH: New "Liaisons"

by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber Love and Hate Dangerously in Broadway's New "Liaisons." 

“WHAT I’M saying, you stupid little girl, that provided you take a few elementary precautions, you can do it or not as often as you like, with as many different men as you like, in as many different ways as you like.”

Such is the advice of the malicious but charming Marquise de Merteuil to a young woman who has unknowingly became a pawn in the elaborate and lecherous game-playing between the Marquise and her ex-lover — but constant companion in debauchery — Vicomte de Valmont.
Liev Schreiber as Le Vicomte de Valmont.
The vicious but elegant plots and double-crossing that make up the latest production of Christopher Hampton’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” — based on the novel by Choderlos de Laclos — are as entertaining as ever, come to life on the stage of Broadway’s Booth Theater.

Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber star as Merteuil and Valmont, the soul-dead pair who derive such fun from the unhappiness of others. Until they don’t.
Janet McTeer as the scheming Marquise de Merteuil.
The theme of hurting people just for the pleasure of it, still doesn’t seem quite realistic, even today, desensitized to cruelty as we sometimes apparently are. But bad people doing bad things to nice people — everybody dressed up, too! — is always fun to watch.

I would love to say that the two screen versions of this tale, 1988’s “Dangerous Liaisons” (Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer) and 1989’s “Valmont” (Annette Bening, Colin Firth, Meg Tilly) are dim memories and have no influence on what I saw onstage over the weekend. I cannot.
Glenn Close and John Malkovich in 1988’s “Dangerous Liaisons."
If you are expecting the ice-cold, brilliantly bizarre, Kabuki Theater vibe of the Close/Malkovich version, this, directed by Josie Rourke is considerably warmer. Close and Malkovich were so unremittingly evil and charmless (in a riveting way) balloons with the words “Bad People!” almost seemed to be popping up every time they appeared onscreen.

“Valmont” on the other hand, a lesser success but worthy, had a far lighter feel. Bening and Firth seemed like people who — though without apparent conscience — were not difficult to imagine in bed, pleasuring themselves and others.
Colin Firth and Annette Bening in 1989’s “Valmont."
The new stage production has more the feel of “Valmont” but considering that it is presented onstage, it could have used more of the arch artificiality of the first film. (The material begs for all manner of ham.)

Janet McTeer is a great actress — a 1997 Tony award for her Nora in "A Doll's House" and twice an Oscar nominee.  She is also a stunner; every inch (all six feet one of her) a woman to contend with and conquer, if you can. Liev Schreiber is also a terrific actor. But somehow, they don’t mesh onstage. Part of this has to do with how they interpret their roles. McTeer plays it almost too light, too coquettishly to make us believe she’s as bad as she is, or that she cares as much for Valmont as she eventually reveals. Her sense of betrayal, her “love” for Valmont, comes on rather suddenly. McTeer’s marquise also — in some affectionate gestures and expressions — seems to lean a bit toward the Sapphic side. (Later, in delivering one of the play’s great lines, about why she has never married again, McTeer, facing Valmont’s rage, behaves in too frightened a manner to give that moment the impact it deserves. While it is realistic that the marquise would be scared, why go for realism in such a piece?)
Schreiber — a Tony winner for 2005’s “Glenngarry Glen Ross” — whom audiences know currently as the star of TV’s “Ray Donovan” is certainly sexy enough as Valmont — especially when he opens his nightshirt — but he, too plays it rather lightly at first, and then too suddenly intense. With a Britishy actory accent, and louche, semi-intoxicated air, he reminded me, oddly, of Cary Grant in one of Grant’s few gritty roles. Playing a fabled seducer, this comparison shouldn’t be a bad thing, and it’s not disastrous, simply not as compelling or convincing as it (or Valmont) should be.
Perhaps it is the costumes. Miss McTerr couldn’t be more at home in her sweeping, bosom-revealing gowns, circa the 1790’s. Schreiber is a modern, and seems eager to lose the breeches and waistcoat. He doesn’t look comfortable. A more experimental production — McTeer in Versace, Schreiber in Tom Ford, might have been the ticket.

And when his “big” scene arrives, Valmont’s cruel, endless recitation of “It is beyond my control,” the terrible moment seems rushed, and less than impactful. Although the audience does gasp at his final physical manhandling of the tragic Madame de Tourvel, played by Birgitte Hjort Sorensen. (We are certainly more sensitive to the abuse of women these days.)
Birgitte Hjort Sorensen as Madame de Tourvel.
Elena Kampouris as Cécile Volanges.
THIS IS by no means a wasted theatre experience. The dialogue alone is worth the ticket price — “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” would make a riveting reading; a dozen people sitting in chairs, scripts in hand.

Elena Kampouris as the innocent (but not for long) Cecile Volanges is appropriately silly, frightened and under Valmont’s aggressive — more than a little rapey — ministrations, sensually awakened. And I very much liked Miss Sorensen, in her Broadway debut, as the faithful (but not forever) Cecile. She interprets the character, usually played with perpetually dampened eyes, more forcefully. Alas, she gives in, as she must. But her struggle is mighty convincing.

High marks as well to Mary Beth Peil as the kind but worldly wise Madame de Rosemonde, Raffi Barsoumian as the dim — if useful and attractive — Chevalier Danceny. (Fans of “The Vampire Diaries” might recognize him.)

Also, an excellent Ora Jones as Cecile’s mother Madame de Volanges.
Mary Beth Peil as Madame de Rosemonde.
And — another Broadway debut — Laura Sudduth in the deliciously showy role of Julie, one of Valmont’s casual conquests.

The set by Tom Scutt is exquisite, a minimalist, ruined jewel box — aptly conveying the ruined lifestyles of the major protagonists. It is swiftly converted to the salons of the marquise, Valmont, and a country estate, with a few simple adjustments. Glittering chandeliers rise and fall with the moods of the characters. Scutt also designed the costumes, which are beautiful and period appropriate without any distracting over-opulence.
I recommend this production — and also recommend that you understand we are not “real” theatre critics here.

And with that also a full admission that my over-familiarity with the two screen versions, more than likely colored my reaction to director Josie Rourke’s often fascinating revisiting of vile bodies, black mischief, lechery as a parlor game and love discovered only as one might find an orchid that blooms in the mud.

Contact Liz here.