It’s been a while since a major theater has produced English playwright Christopher Hampton’s version of the 18th century French novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” almost certainly because the Stephen Frears film adaptation of the play, starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich, still reverberates in people’s memories. Hampton’s sharply drawn, smartly crafted conversion of the epistolary work into a chamber drama deserves revisiting, providing as it does several juicy roles for actors and opportunities for stylish theatricality. The Pasadena Playhouse production, staged by artistic director Sheldon Epps, is an adequate but not especially inspired remounting. It moves fairly well and achieves an effective clarity, but never tingles with the essential sinister sexuality that would breathe imaginative life into the piece.
The primary limitation rests with Epps’ casting of James Sutorius as Valmont, a Don Juan-like charmer who, egged on by promises of sexual reward by the equally mischievous Marquise de Merteuil (Lynnda Ferguson), takes on the challenge of seducing the married, and famously virtuous, Madame de Tourvel (Monette Magrath).
Sutorius, whose bio includes an impressive array of regional Shakespeare productions, has the well-trained voice for the role, but he lacks the combination of sophistication, magnetism and menace that make these liaisons so dangerous.
It’s not an easy role, requiring the actor to be many things to many characters, and ultimately to transform a villainous figure into one that verges on the tragic.
Malkovich had all the required elements but gave such an absurdly indulgent performance that the film, otherwise successfully realized, suffered severely as a result.
Alan Rickman assayed the role perfectly on Broadway, relishing the double entendres that make the playing deliciously naughty while resisting going over the top.
Sutorius, or Epps, or both, seem not to appreciate the lingual fun to be had. The best example of their squandering such opportunities comes in a scene where Valmont uses the back of his regular courtesan Emilie (Abigail Revasch) as a desktop to write Tourvel a love letter filled with sexual innuendo.
But here the lines are rushed, the humor dissolved, and the sense that these characters are playing with fire never emerges.
As the Marquise de Merteuil, Ferguson is stronger. She manages to make clear the surface propriety that belies her desperate need for revenge, and she captures the immoral pleasure the character takes in destroying her young protege, the innocent but sexually curious Cecile (Gemma Massot).
The scenes between Merteuil and Valmont are the center of the work, but until very late in the piece they lack heft here. Early on Ferguson seems to try to engage Sutorius, but Epps hasn’t done enough to define a singular playing style.
Ferguson speaks to Sutorius; Sutorius, in a far more presentational style, speaks toward the audience. He also tends to fidget with his hands, not quite comfortable physically in the role.
Magda Harout, as Valmont’s wise aunt Mme. De Rosemonde, Massot as Cecile, Channing Chase as Mme. De Volanges, Revasch as Emilie and Drew Ebersole as Danceny are all quite fine, but tend to push the punchlines rather than find the proper restrained precision the writing calls for; they tend to play the fools with too much obviousness.
In this way, Epps’ direction emphasizes the comic at the expense of the darker, more affecting elements.
The design work here is also good but far from great. The set, designed by John Iacovelli, is elegantly bare but slides on and off enough furniture that it should do a better job distinguishing the various locales.
Jean-Pierre Dorleac’s costumes and Linda Andreani’s period wigs are appropriately elaborate and boldly attempt to define characters with color (Mme. De Rosemonde is gray from head to toe).
But the color scheme seems a bit odd, with most characters in shades of beige but Merteuil and Danceny in dark green, and Tourvel’s busty look is all wrong for the part, forcing Magrath to play prim and proper when her cleavage says the opposite.