Who’d have thought that the most provocative battle of the sexes on Broadway this year would be a 31-year-old play based on an 18th-century French novel?
At a time when gender politics loom as large in our national discussion as any other issue — not least of all in our stranger-than-fiction presidential race — the questions posed in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Christopher Hampton’s trenchant adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s account of sexual intrigue among aristocrats, may seem relatively quaint. But Donmar Warehouse artistic director Josie Rourke’s staging, fueled by the ferocious talents of Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber (replacing Dominic West, McTeer’s costar when the production originated in London), proves this is hardly the case.
Schreiber reintroduces the unapologetically dissolute Vicomte de Valmont, with McTeer cast as his erstwhile lover, the Marquise de Merteuil — a truly nasty woman, by all indications, though one whose schemes are informed by limited opportunities, notwithstanding her wealth, station and cunning. “Our sex has few enough advantages,” she tells Cécile Volanges, her cousin’s 15-year-old daughter, who’s fast learning about them. “You may as well make the most of those you have.”
For those unfamiliar with the play (or the film adaptation, starring Glenn Close as Merteuil and John Malkovich as Valmont), Liaisons follows the former flames and enduring partners in crime as they conspire in Valmont’s seduction of two women: the virginal Cécile and the devout, happily married Madame de Tourvel. Cécile is the Marquise’s target, a pawn in her plan to avenge a man from her past who’s now set his sights on the teenager. Tourvel is Valmont’s passion project: “I want her to believe in God and virtue and the sanctity of marriage,” he tells Merteuil, “and still not be able to stop herself.”
But that’s only part of it. Valmont is falling in love with Tourvel, as Merteuil gleans early on, a discovery that will gradually make the game less pleasurable for both and even more poisonous for all concerned. As Rourke’s designers reinforce the naughty decadence of their milieu — Tom Scutt’s set is a study in fraying grandeur; Lorin Latarro’s movement finds players dancing and nuzzling between scenes — the director extracts witty, erotically charged and deeply moving performances, and not just from the two leads.
Birgitte Hjort Sørensen’s Tourvel is as wrenching as she is luminous, projecting a wholesome sensuality that’s not so much repressed as contained by her character’s modesty and moral virtue. The marvelous Mary Beth Peil lends added poignance as Tourvel’s devoted older friend and Valmont’s aunt, who loves her nephew despite being on to him. Elena Kampouris is a charmingly giddy Cecile, while Ora Jones manages both comical stuffiness and warmth as her mother.
McTeer’s Merteuil is in some way a foil to each of these women. Speaking in a breathy alto purr that will make your spine tingle, she’s the most poised and alluring control freak you’ll ever meet. But the actress also brings a delightfully loosey-goosey physicality to the part, spinning and waving her arms impishly in moments of perceived victory. What emerges is a woman clinging to the powers of nubile femininity as mortality encroaches, and this makes Merteuil’s descent into jealous desperation even more devastating.
In Valmont, for whom age is less of a menace, Schreiber has a character that accommodates his flair for darkness and dry humor and well suits his robust emotional range. Valmont is forced to choose between his vanity and cynicism (and his bond to Merteuil) and a nascent sense of something more fulfilling, and Schreiber relays the consequences with a brutal but poetic force.
“I’ve succeeded, because I always knew I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own,” Merteuil assures Valmont at one point. She, and we, know better; but in this penetrating Liaisons, that doesn’t make their misguided quests any less unsettling. A