Les Liaisons Dangereuses is like any play by Oscar Wilde, except when it isn’t. Wilde punctured the piety and pomposity of 19th-century England, to show us the underbelly of lust and greed. In the epistolary novel upon which Liaisons is based, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos punctured the freewheeling lust and libertinism of 18th-century France, to show us its underbelly of hatred and misery.
The version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses you will see at Baltimore’s Center Stage is a contemporary one: Christopher Hampton’s 1985 adaptation of the novel. Under Director Hana S. Sharif’s sure hand and the company’s impressive production work, Center Stage has managed to produce a Liaisons which is decidedly of its period, but which serves deftly as a cautionary tale as well.
In the 1970s, the term “sport sex” entered the lexicon. It referred to sex between, or among, partners which had no value or significance beyond the pleasure of the act itself. In Liaisons, sex becomes the weapon of choice for a darker sport: the giving of pain and the ruining of lives.
The naïve Cecile Volanges (Noelle Franco) has returned from the convent to enter into an arranged marriage. Her perspective husband was once the lover of the Marquise de Merteull (Suzzanne Douglas) but later abandoned her, and the Marquise is keen on revenge. She calls upon that serial seducer, the Vicomte de Valmont (Brent Harris), to enchant and deflower the young woman, thus spoiling her for her husband.
Valmont will have none of it, though. Cecile, a teenager, is not a sufficient challenge for him; he has his sights on Mme de Tourvel (Gillian Williams), a married woman of unquestioned — and outspoken — virtue who is staying with Valmont’s aunt (Elizabeth Shepherd) while the younger woman’s husband is trying a case in another city. If Valmont can manage to bring the pious Tourvel into his bed, he reasons, his reputation will be unsurpassed.
Merteull and Valmont — who were once lovers themselves — cement an arrangement by raising the stakes: if Valmont succeeds both in despoiling Cecile and seducing Tourvel, Merteull will reward him with a night of pleasure in her own bed.
The subject is love and sex, but Laclos’ novel relentlessly made sure that the love was absent and the sex was joyless. Sharif and the first-rate cast, which also includes Carine Montbertrand as Cecile’s mother, Aaron Bartz as Valmont’s spy, Georgia Warner as Valmont’s personal courtesan, and Paul Deo, Jr. as Ceciles’ true love, to the extent that phrase means anything in this play, pound the point home.
Harris as Volmont is not conventionally handsome — not overwhelmingly so, in any event — but he exudes power, and thus appears magnetic to his victims. (Cannily, Sharif surrounds Harris with an ensemble of servants who are all significantly smaller than he is). His initial approach to Cecile is closer to rape than seduction, and her subsequent eagerness for more “instruction” (after some toxic advice from the Marquise) shows a society which has abandoned dignity and self-respect. With Tourvel he assumes the mantle of the good man horrified by his own behavior, who needs the example of her inner strength and honor to help him become the person he was supposed to be. In truth, of course, he is a bad man who means to drain her inner strength and destroy her honor.
Douglas, like Harris, has the task of showing us a person who is as dangerous and malevolent as a cobra, but who seems as sweet as cotton candy and as loving as a newly-besotted grandma. Like Harris, she succeeds. When Marteull is with Cecile, or Cecile’s mother, or Tourvel, she seems wise and sophisticated, concerned and reasonable. When she is alone with Valmont, she seems all these things still, even while hatching her horrible stratagems, because Valmont is her ally, whose success she prizes. Only when things are working out for her does the mask drop, and we see the dead thing underneath, incapable of pleasure, except in the pain of others.
On the other hand, Williams as Tourvel has the opposite journey: from self-satisfaction to the doubt and apprehension of forbidden love. And as Williams plays her, what Tourvel comes to feel is a great warm ocean of love, which batters against her vows, and eventually dissolves them. It is absolutely realistic, and absolutely convincing.
The other actors are not given such complex tasks, but they do all that we can ask from them. The two young men — Bartz as Azolan, Volmont’s agent, and Deo as Danceny, Cecile’s suitor — radiate ambition, though of different kinds. Montbertrand expertly portrays the typical French aristocrat prior to the Revolution: conventionally-minded, unimaginative, but not so heartless that she wouldn’t wonder whether she should let her daughter marry Danceny. (A catastrophic development for Marteull, she doesn’t want her ex to merely be deprived of a wife; she wants him to have the humiliation of a wife who is not a virgin).
And the elegant Shepherd, in a role which could be treated as a throwaway, gives Madame de Rosemonde warmth and common sense throughout; it is clear that she loves her nephew, but it is also clear that she knows who he is.
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closes December 23, 2016
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The production values are extraordinary, even by Center stage’s high standards. The set (Michael Carnahan) alternates between a drawing room (Rosemonde’s or Merteull’s) with a glass wall and another building behind it and a bedroom (anyone’s), with low chandelier and dim lighting for shenanigans. The period costumes (Fabio Tablini) are beautiful and authentic; the lightning-quick scene changes (and there are a lot of them) are punctuated by beautiful lighting (Matthew Richards) and splendid original music (Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes).
So is this the perfect theatrical experience, a sort of anti-Christmas Carol? I’m afraid not. For all the wit in the first act, it goes on way too long, in part to describe the complicated plot. It is full of expositional dialogue, in which people explain things to each other as a way of explaining them to the audience. This is an occupational hazard of adapting a book to the stage. In the book, the narrative makes the setting and the stakes clear to the reader, but in a play this job falls to the characters, who, as written, are not always up to the task.
But worse than this is the deplorable condition of Center Stage itself. The grand, $28-million renovation was supposed to be done by the time this play opened. It was not; the completion date is now the end of February. The lobby is in chaos; the coffee shop is gone; there is only one bathroom per gender in the entire theater, which meant for long lines on both sides during the intermission. The Pearlstone Theater itself appears to be finished, and beautiful, but the heat is inadequate. People in the orchestra seats seemed uncomfortable despite their overcoats and scarves; if you go — which I still recommend, notwithstanding these difficulties — try to get a seat in the balcony, where it is warmer.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, adapted by Christopher Hampton from a novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, directed by Hana S. Sharif, assisted by Brandon Rashad Butts. Featuring Suzzanne Douglas, Noel;le Franco, Carine Montbertrand, Brent Harris, Aaron Bartz, Elizabeth Shepherd, Gillian Williams, Georgia Warner, Paul Deo, Jr., Jeff Keogh, Ricardo S. Blagrove, Brent Messiora, and Chloe Mikala. Scenic Designer: Michael Carnahan . Costume Designer: Fabio Toblini . Lighting Designer: Matthew Richards . Original Music and Sound Designers: Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes . Fight Director: Rick Sordelet with Sordelet INK . Stage Manager: Megan Smith, assisted by Jeremy Phillips . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.