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Les Liaisons Dangereuses

An erotic chess game played by two bored and decadent 18th century, Parisian aristocrats: evenly matched with a dangerous endgame of double jeopardy.

Janet McTeer and Live Schreiber in a scene from “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber in a scene from “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Cynthia Allen

Cynthia Allen, Critic

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is an erotic game of jeopardy played by bored,  decadent, 18th century Parisian aristocrats — Marquise de Merteuil (the always captivating Janet McTeer) and Vicomte de Valmont (an ill-chosen, but game Liev Schreiber). When the Christopher Hampton’s play opens, this jeu parti or chess game is evenly divided, where the chances of winning or losing seem equally balanced, hence a high-risk and perilous competition. The opening gambit is predicated on a sexual wager, which anticipates a plethora of dangerous liaisons. Not only is the outcome ambiguous–who really “wins”–but the endgame becomes one of double jeopardy to the two game-players.

Playwright Hampton adapted Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel, as a chic, erotic Frigidaire play, filled with two, vicious and dangerous virtuosos, adept at political intrigue and gamesmith. Hampton’s masterful take on seduction and power turned Laclos’ four volumes of fictional letters into a morality play that transcends time and place, and which garnered him numerous awards since the play first opened in 1985.

Liev Schreiber and Elena Kampouris in a scene from “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Liev Schreiber and Elena Kampouris in a scene from “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Josie Rourke, artisic director of the Donmar Warehouse, understands the game’s complexity and what adroit moves need to be made throughout to maintain a psychological cohesiveness.  Her deft hand is evident in her light touch so that the production is not weighed down by nastiness. Where Rourke falls down is casting Schreiber, who is known for his charismatic masculinity and not for being a jocund bon vivant. Valmont needs to be more calculating, as well as, effete.

Janet McTeer’s Merteuil has all the crafty charm needed to seduce both experienced and virginal prey – both intellectually and physically. McTeer deliberately lowers the register of her voice so that she is both commanding and ominous.

Mary Beth Pell (Valmont’s aunt, Madame de Rosemonde) first appears to be constantly in a tizzy but exhibits an august savoir-faire in the matters of love. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (Madame de Tourvel) deftly portrays how even the most chaste and religious can come under the influence of the seductive Valmont. Elena Kampouris makes her Broadway debut playing the virginal Cécile Volanges with believable naïveté. Raffi Barsoumian (Le Chevalier Danceny) is entertaining in his nonplussed officiousness.

Mary Beth Peil and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen in a scene from “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Mary Beth Peil and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen in a scene from “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Tom Scutt (set and costume designer) is a stand-out in his scenic design choices. He gradually lays bare the set of its deteriorating grandiose décor. What is left is a former grand salon that has fallen into disuse, representing the waste and desolation of lives spoiled by power. Equally exquisite are Scutt’s costumes. Mark Henderson’s lighting design is appropriately ethereal, with attention drawn to the chandeliers and candelabras. Michael Bruce (composer and musical supervisor) creates a faux-18th century score that at times the players sing as they move about the stage. (Kudos to Lorin Latarro as movement director).

Endgames are often precarious when power and seduction are called into play. Though one opponent may seem to be the winner, Hampton leaves the outcome to be a double jeopardy – unclear who incurred the most disadvantages in their future.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses (through January 8, 2017)
The Donmar Warehouse Production
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit: http://liaisonsbroadway.com/
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission

Cynthia Allen
About Cynthia Allen (17 Articles)
Cynthia Allen is a professor at New York University, with teaching interests involving art and new media: how the role of new media impacts all aspects of culture and society. She has been involved in film production in various capacities since the 1980s -- film producer, arts archive consultant, and more -- working with such celebrated filmmakers as Joel and Ethan Coen, Sergio Leone and Martin Scorsese. She is actively involved in the audio book, radio drama and podcasting community, serving as the Festival Director of HEAR Now: The Audio Fiction & Arts Festival for over three years. For over 12 years, she has been the director and editor of Modern Theatre Online, a theater archive and critics website. Since 2006, she has been and continues to be the website director and editor for the theater critics organization, the Outer Critics Circle (OCC), as well as being a voting member.

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