Les Liaisons Dangereuses
By: Choderlos de Laclos
Adapted by: Christopher Hampton
Directed by: David Darlow
At The Greenhouse Theater Center Upstairs Mainstage
Although not perfect, Liaisons is an affair worth attending.
Although I have heard of the novel, play, and movie; this was my first experience with Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Remy Bumppo has put together a fine group of actors to navigate this tale of sex, manipulation, and power. Unfortunately, due to certain directorial choices and an uneven pace, the play starts to feel repetitive and flat as it nears the end of act one. Luckily, by a third of the way through the second act the play regains momentum and the final scenes have a resounding impact. All in all, it is a worthwhile journey.
The play is based on the infamous 1782 epistolary novel of sexual intrigue and ruthless manipulation set in pre-Revolutionary France. The action centers around two high-powered friends, the Vicomte de Valmont (played by Nick Sandys) and the Marquise de Merteuil (played by Rebecca Spence) who develop a game to test their well-seasoned skills as lovers. The Marquise challenges the Vicomte to woo the innocent Cecile (played by Margaret Katch), but he is more interested in seducing the prudish Madame Tourvel (played by Linda Gillum). The Marquise goes as far to promise an evening of pleasure to the Vicomte if he can get Madame Tourvel to write a letter confirming their “relationship.” As the two deceitful lovers battle for the upper hand, chaos ensues, and they become part of the wreckage as well. It is a story that has been adapted numerous times; some may unfortunately be familiar with the movie Cruel Intentions, but what I liked most about Hampton’s version is that it twisted comic journey that initially appears to be a harmless farce. As the action progresses it becomes a searing drama with a poignant look at modern times (the final scene is one of the best written and most appropriate closing scenes for a play I have ever seen). It functions on both levels, a hard feat to pull off; thankfully both the playwright did on the page and the actors did on the stage.
This play is worth seeing solely for the performances of Nick Sandys and Rebecca Spence as the Vicomte and the Marquis. Mr. Sandys exudes an air of pompous entitlement, able to lie so convincingly that even I believed his sincerity. He is charming yet ruthless, switching from a knight in shining armor to an aggressive louse. Ms. Spence is a worthy opponent, appearing as an outwardly calm woman confident in her sexuality and standing, but not without a human side. Both of these characters are deplorable, but you feel sympathy for them at the same time. They are more than just manipulators because they have real desires, wants, and needs apart from satisfying their sexual appetites. Linda Gillum as Madame Tourvel is also quite strong as an unhappy wife struggling to control her desire for another man whom she truly loves. The performances were wonderful across the board, including understudy Paul Hurley (whom I applaud for being so prepared to step into the role of Danceny on opening night), but when Sandys and Spence were on stage together the theatre was electric. In spite of the fine performances, I do a wish a dialect coach would have been hired (if one was, it is not mentioned in the program). Mr. Sandys is the only one speaking in an English accent (he is from England), and although some actors use strong stage-standard dialect, others were very nasal and modern sounding. It is not a matter of which accent is correct, it is a matter of consistency.
Most of the problems with the show lie in its pacing. Director David Darlow wonderfully understands the pacing in the scenes, but transitions are another story. After every scene there was a 20-40 second transition that consisted of either a full blackout to a blue light, a full blackout, a brief lighting of the pieces of furniture, or some other means to move a settee a couple of inches, rotate a wall, or slide in a painting. These transitions never allow the action to gain steam which is highly disappointing because rather than the scenes feeling connected they become individual moments which lessens the impact of the ending. The set design of Alan Donahue is simple and direct, although I appreciate the subtle change of the background paintings depending on the mood of the scene. The lighting design of Michael Rourke (apart from the blackout/transition moments) is atmospheric and the final image of the play is very strong. Emily Waecker’s period costumes are colorful, vibrant, and the strongest technical aspect of the show. If the transitions were tightened, this could be a truly wonderful production. It shows just how important the moments between the dialogue can be.
In spite of the problems I have with the pacing and accent work, I would definitely recommend seeing this production for its witty dialogue, period visuals, and fiery performances. There is some nudity in the show and the subject matter is more adult, so be careful about bringing your mother. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy this roller-coaster of love.
At The Greenhouse Theater Center Upstairs Mainstage, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. Tickets $35-$50, Call 773-404-7336, www.remybumppo.org. Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays 2:30 PM, running time is approximately 2 hours 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.