Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Reviewed by Jenny Lower
Antaeus Theatre Company
Through December 10
Antaeus announced Christopher Hampton’s 1987 adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses as the debut of its current season all the way back in June. The director’s note in the program discusses how this pre-revolutionary tale of French aristocratic depravity speaks to our era of the one percent.
But in fall 2017, the play’s observations on gender and society drown out its political ones. In the opening scene, Madame de Volanges reveals to her daughter the conspiracy within “society” to continue receiving the unsavory Valmont despite his misdeeds: “You’ll soon find that society is riddled with such inconsistencies: we’re all aware of them, we all deplore them, and in the end, we all accommodate them.” It’s impossible not to hear in her striking words a commentary on the culture of silence that produced a Harvey Weinstein.
Director Robin Larsen makes the most of these echoes. In Cruel Intentions, the 90s prep school-themed film adaptation of Liaisons Dangereuses I grew up with, Cecile was portrayed with pouty sexiness by Selma Blair. In Larsen’s staging, 15-year-old Cecile’s “seduction” by Valmont is unquestionably a rape. But despite that clear-eyed depiction, this Liaisons is a delicious, crackling production that seduces the audience with its wit, humor and behind-the-curtain peek at sexual gamesmanship — even as it snatches away the veil and forces us to confront our own complicity in rooting for Valmont’s victory.
At the center are the Marquise de Merteuil (Elyse Mirto) and the Vicomte de Valmont (Scott Ferrara), former lovers, now pals. They conceive a plot for Valmont to deflower the virtuous, convent-educated Cécile (Chelsea Kurtz) before her impending marriage to Merteuil’s (offstage) former lover, who offended Merteuil by casting her off for someone less experienced. And Valmont plans to achieve his greatest conquest to date with the seduction of Madame de Tourvel (Liza Seneca), known equally for her piety and happy marriage.
Ferrara has a firm grasp of the comic potential of his role, and he uses it to deliver ripe double entendres. He’s best slithering across the stage, parrying resistance with aggression and calculated deference. But when the louche Valmont falls in love with his intended prey, Ferrara conveys genuine emotion as a man unbalanced by his own vulnerability. Mirto is equally good, though more understated, as the elegant Marquise, the drawing room version of Cersei Lannister. Mirto is adept at softening her viciousness in polite company with a self-deprecating laugh, and she looks regal in Jocelyn Hublau Parker’s costume — a wink at a character who dresses like a lady but draws blood like a man. After a brief warm-up on opening night, she and Ferrara found their rhythm, and their recurring tête-à-têtes as the bet progresses are the show’s greatest pleasure. Mirto occasionally seemed stiff with the physical intimacies of the role, though that may have been a calculated coolness.
The supporting players are mostly good too, including Chad Borden as Valmont’s oily assistant. Seneca is excellent as Mme de Torval; as a woman torn between desire and integrity, she manages to convey virtue without priggishness. More than Cécile’s trampled innocence, her cry of despair when Valmont turns on her serves as a strong foil to the play’s amoral characters. Kurtz mostly succeeds by looking young and fragile, but the play would benefit from a more forceful performance, and her brief encounters with Danceny (Paul Culos) do little to persuade us of their love.
Parker’s costumes are a stylish blend of French ruffles, 80s spangles and fuck-me heels. Yee Eun Nam’s projections give a gritty, modern edge to the period-inspired set. Like all Antaeus productions, this one is partner-cast. (The production reviewed is The Lovers.)
Antaeus Theatre Company, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale 91205; Thurs.- Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat,. 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through December 10; antaeus.org; Running time: approximately two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.