Les Liaisons Dangereuses
by Margaret Croyden

Laura Linney and Ben Daniels in "Les Liasons Dangereuses." Photo by Joan Marcus.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
by Christopher Hampton
Roundabout Theater Company
Directed by Rufus Norris
with Laura Linney and Ben Daniels
American Airlines Theater, West 42 & Broadway
Opened May 1, 2008
Reviewed May 7, 2008

Christopher Hampton's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" is based on the epistolary novel by the Frenchman, Choderlos de Laclos who wrote the book in 1782. Hampton's adaptation was first produced in l987, followed by the movie, 1988. The film achieved a good deal of attention and was a huge success, particularly for the work of Glen Close and John Malkovich in the leads. In this current production both Laura Linney and Ben Daniels as the two unscrupulous schemers are miscast. Which leaves the play an empty shell.

First the plot. A rather nasty, venomous couple, once lovers, make a bet. If the man, the Count de Valmont, can deflower a virtuous woman, his ex-lover, the Marquise de Merteuil promises him another night in bed. The plot thickens when the supreme woman-bitch, Merteuil, manipulates everything behind the scene so that she will win her bet. And she does--only to find nothing in the end. Neither does he. Both are defeated in their nasty game, which they hoped would discredit the notion of romantic love in favor of sexual, predatory behavior, based only on animal desire and conquest.

What is the point of this revival? To be sure, the playwright wanted to depict the vulgarity of the aristocrats just prior to the French revolution--how they lived, what they valued and particulalyr their sexual games. Watching the play I was acutely aware that not only had the play nothing to do with our lives now--in the middle of monsoons, tornadoes, earthquakes, genocide, and mass starvation. Besides, he metaphor the author chose to dramatize the depravity of the French aristocracy distracted from his intended serious message, as the characters fornicated on stage. This may have titillated the audience but it distracted from the message and added to the vulgarity of the play, for the sexual became more important than the message behind it.
Of course the historical dramatization about the regime ancien could be interesting, but not a shallow attempt with sex as the main issue. Real history is too complicated to indulge in some fantastic mish mash. And further, why did Roundabout bring back this old potato, this sex farce disguised as important literature, and add to more than fourteen revivals now on Broadway?

The acting did not help. Laura Linney, fresh from her beautiful portrayal of Abigail Adams on HBO's fascinating series, "John Adams" (although she lacked Abigail's fire) is in a role unsuited for her. Sh cannot convince us: she seemed to be going through the motions. Maybe Ms. Linney has been playing too many admiral, sympathetic characters, and cannot "get into" playing "evil." Ben Daniels as the supreme womanizer is too short, too plain, too unsexy for us to believe he could readily seduce anyone. He simply has not got the body to go with the breeches he wears, nor the animal magnetism such a man would have to attract so many women. (No Richard Burton or John Malkovich here.)

The production is elaborately designed--with handsome curtains strewn over half the stage--ruffles and all, but to what effect? To cover up the fornication in some of the scenes and to hide the leading man's private parts when he appears totally nude on stage when he rapes his young prey. As for that splendid actress, Sian Phillips as Valmont's aunt --she wears over blown costumes and a hideous wig so that her face is practically unrecognizable.

To make matters worse there is supercilious dialogue supposedly witty, about the role of sex , men, adultery, marriage liars, and bastards. This kind of conversation may be racy for some but for me, these attempts to be clever, a la Oscar Wilde, dragged the play on drugging one with boredom.

Margaret Croyden's recent book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

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