Perhaps one of the greatest trickeries in the current Broadway revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, is not the drawing room antics of La Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer) or her lover/nemesis Le Vicomte de Valmont (Liev Schreiber), but the Playbill cover, which shows the pair in an elicit embrace, promising theatrical fireworks that just might enflame the Booth Theatre.
Alas, while the pair is adept at cutting wordplay, Christopher Hampton’s 1987 stage adaptation of the book by the same name is full of witty one-liners but must rely on full-throttle staging to lift it off the page.
Director Josie Rourke’s production, which originated at London’s Donmar Warehouse, is modestly successful, with no help from a dreary, dilapidated set by Tom Scutt. (His costumes, limited though they are, offer a glimmer of what the physical production could have aspired to.) This Les Liaisons Dangereuses is lean instead of lush, staged on a single set that’s dressed (or undressed, as the case may be) by an ensemble of operatic chambermaids.
Set in various salons and bedrooms throughout Paris and the countryside in the early 1780s, Merteuil and Valmont conspire to corrupt various virtuous women for their own gain: Merteuil wants Valmont’s aid in deflowering the young Cécile Volanges (Elena Kampouris), who has been betrothed to Merteuil’s ex-lover. But Valmont has his eyes set on Madame de Tourvel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) as the ultimate conquest. The pair agrees that if both tasks are accomplished, Merteuil will relent to one last evening of debauchery with Valmont. But then something unexpected happens: love gets in the way.
It’s difficult to ascertain what’s awry in this mostly tepid production—it’s like going on a date with someone who checks all the boxes but with whom you find no spark. As the manipulative Merteuil, McTeer is downright juicy in her interpretation of the text, keeping her true feelings for Valmont simmering under the surface and using witty repartee to her advantage:
“Love is something you use, not something you fall into, like a quicksand, don’t you remember? It’s like medicine, you use it as a lubricant to nature.”
As the testosterone-driven Valmont, Schreiber’s understated performance is mostly in first gear, and while he puts the pedal to the floor in a few key moments (the staging of Cécile’s bedroom seduction is delightful), his 18th century posturing could use some unhinging. In her Broadway debut, Sørensen beautifully captures love’s unruly nature and provides a pure-souled counterpart to the deceptions at hand.
While there’s plenty to find attractive in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it’s ultimately an unfinished canvas (literally represented by the set dressing, which includes scattered portraits throughout). In modern times, you might hover over its image for a few fleeting seconds, but eventually swipe left, looking for the next potential lover to strike your fancy.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
222 West 45th Street, NYC
Through January 22, 2017