Theatre Review: Riotous Affairs in Actors’ Theatre’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Actors’ Theatre closes their 2019 Tainted Love series in the park with a handsome, stiletto-sharp production of Christopher Hampton’s hit 1985 adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, directed by Andy Falter and Philip J. Hickman.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses focuses on the torrid friendship of two bored aristocrats, sometime-lovers and full-time-manipulators La Marquise de Merteuil (Beth Josephsen) and Le Vicomte de Valmont (Philip Hickman, in for the listed James Harper at the performance I saw). In a tangled knot of motivations, Valmont sets about seducing the married paragon of virtue, La Presidente de Tourvel (Elizabeth Harelik Falter) and the Marquise’s niece, Cecile Volanges (Chloe Beck), leaving wreckage in his wake.
The play stands as a summit of witty, debonair evil. It parades the fun of treating people as playthings but never takes an eye off the grief hangover that always casts its long shadow over that brand of dehumanization. The decay at the core of decadence rises in a variety of surprising and subtle ways in this production.
This production revolves around the intoxicating reunion of Josephsen and Hickman, cast as a differently toxic couple in Available Light’s Appropriate in January. Josephsen plays the various moods of her character like a master violinist trying on a classic Stradivarius, finding the sweet spot for dissonance and tonic. Her Merteuil will haunt the audience for a long while after seeing this. Hickman’s Valmont nails the blend of raw id indulgence and calculating coldness the character requires – manners barely containing the animal ready to pounce at the slightest sign of weakness.
The supporting characters also shine here, uniformly well-cast enough to feel like flesh and blood people with their own desires and agendas. Of particular note: Justin King’s long-suffering, fatigued aide-de-camp Azolan gets a fresh, funny, self-aware take. Cat McAlpine’s wry commentary crackles as Valmont’s sometime foil Emilie. Catherine Cryan assails Valmont’s aunt, Madame de Rosemond, with a gravitas, vigor, and glee, that keeps the character from falling into the plot point trap.
Falter and Hickman’s production shuffles through the various rhythms of seduction and comedy, never staying locked in to one mode or tempo. Appropriate for the time and setting, they and their cast, never feel like they’re rushing a punch line, they let the lines sink in.
This Liaisons Dangereuses only slips when it fails to stick the landing. The production hints at the crushing isolation of Merteuil’s ostracization from society in the mutually assured destruction of her and Valmont’s war with Josephsen cast in shadow during Valmont’s duel with Danceny (a fine William Scarborough) and her final scene around the table with Madame de Volanges (Treasure Davidson) and Cryan’s Rosemond, but it feels slight for a character drawn with such clarity and so much to do until that point. And the aggressive wink about the guillotine at the end feels like too sharp an elbow in the ribs, “Get it? Get it?”
Those minor qualms aside, this was an exquisite, funny production of one of my favorite plays. And an unnerving reminder how sadly these themes of treating people as less resonate throughout history: from the pre-Revolution France of the novel, to the mid-’80s of the original production, to today.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses runs through September 1 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. For more information, visit theactorstheatre.org/2019-season.