Director Glenn Griffin’s reimagining of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is so naughty that it seems a product of modern-day decadence, rather than a rendition of an 18th century epistolary novel. The book, published in 1782 by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, was adapted for the stage in 1985 by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the screenplay for the 1988 movie “Dangerous Liaisons.” While the play drips with sexuality, it craves emotion. Perhaps that is the point.
The Marquise de Merteuil gleans pleasure and purpose from sexual conquest. Through a series of lovers, she has learned how to manipulate, rather than to be manipulated. (Or so she thinks.) Her ex-lover, Vicomte de Valmont, is a rich playboy who covets his reputation as a cad. In the years before the French Revolution, these miscreants are bored.
So Merteuil, played by with the severity of a dominatrix by Cynthia Farbman Harris, devises a scheme. She challenges Valmont to seduce Cecile Volanges (Amanda Berkowitz), a teenager who lives in a convent. Valmont (Kristian Alexander Wedolowski) sees her as too easy a target and challenges himself to seduce Madame de Tourvel, a married woman whose virtue ensures that his overtures will be resisted.
Valmont believes he has discovered the most enticing sexual truth: The passion men seek can come only from a desire so strong that the woman in question betrays her core values to consummate it.
Griffin employs characteristics of German impressionism to create an atmosphere of impending doom. While the sexual activity on stage strives for eroticism, the set is sterile. Black and white are woven through set and costuming. Actors walk in right angles like soldiers, on a stage that sometimes acts as a chessboard and other times as a labyrinth.
The play’s challenge is to elicit an emotional response from the audience about the fate of the main characters. It’s a difficult charge. Wedolowski looks and sounds the part, but from the beginning he is more playful than evil, which makes his alliance with the icy Marquise de Merteuil a touch questionable. His desire to win the prize of Merteuil for one night seems contrived, in light of all his other opportunities.
Griffin puts much of the action on the floor – literally. Animal images abound, as the main players slither and coil like dueling pythons. Valmont lies on his back with his head in Merteuil’s lap like a submissive dog awaiting a treat. Seductions take place with a woman supine on the linoleum or balanced upon Valmont’s knee. The sex is imaginative, though devoid of romance.
Frederick’s of Hollywood has nothing on the array of smoldering costumes compiled by Barbi Van Schaick. Leather bodices, fur trim, harnesses and tight pants abound. The unsuspecting victims tend toward plaids, and in a post-seduction scene, a character’s once innocent hair bow becomes part of a negligee.
“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” illustrates that while there have been advances in civilization, members of our species are still craven beasts who do not know how to merge the desires of our bodies with the needs of our hearts. “Vanity and happiness are incompatible,” concludes Merteuil. Perhaps.
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