Entertainment » Theatre

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Jun 6, 2018
Les Liaisons Dangereuses

In 2005, long before she became artistic director for The Nora Theatre, Lee Mikeska Gardner directed an all-male version of Christopher Hampton's stage adaptation of the 1782 French novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, for the Actors' Theatre of Washington. In a time top-heavy with politically influential billionaires, a moment of #MeToo, and a season that started with Actors' Shakespeare Company's all-female rendition of "Julius Caesar," what better production to bring back to the stage than a vision of French aristocracy behaving like... well, men behaving badly?

Hampton's play was adapted for the screen in 1988 by director Stephen Frears, who made of it a voluptuous, bracing, and slightly abrasive work and used the English version of the title: "Dangerous Liaisons" became a cinematic classic. Audience members who wonder at hearing the exact same dialogue in many scenes of the play as they heard in the film can rest assured they are not imagining things. Frears had the good sense to use Hampton's words as much as possible.

That familiarity might help anchor anyone for whom the all-male casting proves dizzying. Greg Maraio and Dan Whelton play the characters at the center of the story, La Marquise de Merteuil and Le Vicomte de Valmont, respectively. Former lovers and diabolical best friends, the two hatch schemes together and separately that cross-pollinate in a web of malice and revenge. Their amusements involve taking the virginity of a naïve young woman named Cécile (James Wechsler), who is engaged to be married to a much older nobleman, as well as the seduction of a married, deeply devout woman, Madame de Tourvel (Eddie Shields). (The fact that their appalling machinations dovetail speaks to the almost literally incestuous nature of the upper class' tight-knit ranks.)

The story's plotting is deliciously symmetrical, if a little baroque, and while the games these people play are frightful to contemplate wit that defines the central characters is every bit as funny as it is caustic. But there are deeper lessons here, too, as Valmont and La Marquise find themselves increasingly at one another's' ruffled throats... and the very fact that they are so casually cut-throat in their dealings guarantees that whatever their true sentiments might be for one another, their love of brinksmanship outweighs all other ties and affections. It's when they look away from one another that other sides to these characters emerge. Valmont's love for Madame de Tourvel is clearly genuine - but so is his adoration for (and co-dependency with) La Marquise, who, in her turn, is positively livid with jealousy even as she repels Valmont's many signals of ongoing sexual interest.

As La Marquise, Maraio positively burns, and he taps into a feminine energy you might not have thought, a couple of months ago when he played a hulking bruiser in "Brawler" at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, that he could access. Whelton plays Valmont as a rake and an amoral sexual con man, but he allows Valmont's more tender feelings to shine through the gaps, making Valmont a tragic character. Jaime Carillo, Dave Rich, Steward Evan Smith, and Maurice Emmanuel Parent round out the cast; there's not one of them I didn't wish the script had given more to do.

The design team has at least as much fun as the cast. David Bryan Jackson's sound design includes suitably fussy period music enlivened with electric guitar riffs that sound - to this reviewer's ear, at least - like something from Queen, aptly enough. Costumer Elizabeth Rocha creates a look that's strangely, and effectively, uniform, dressing the cast in dark khaki trousers and white shirts (or blouses, as the case may be). What we're seeing are fewer people than game pieces... the oldest game of all, perhaps, and one that players of all skill levels can find lethal.

Ready for some dangerous fun? Catch this production, the moral of which is as sharp as its one-liners. As Gardner writes in her program notes, "I live in faith that in (fill in the blank) generations, it will be a true period piece, living dusty on a shelf because it will be seen as passé." One might hope, but as long as people are people - capable of vindictiveness and self-deception - that seems unlikely.

"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" continues at Central Square Theater through July 1. Tickets and more information at https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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