Forget the Super Bowl, celebrity poker and the Olympics. The really big games right now are being played in the Huntington Stage production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” where sex, deceit and revenge add up to the ultimate contact sport. This oft-reheated passion play has its hits and misses, but overall the wicked manipulators in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the 1782 novel by Choderlos de Laclos are just too much fun to miss.
The deliciously naughty, haughty work can be taken only so seriously, after all. Give it too much gravitas and it loses its satirical edge against a corrupt privileged society in pre-revolution Paris. Make the work too arch or silly and it can veer toward camp. Helmer Daniel Goldstein comes close to finding the right balance in his nervy but uneven production, which abandons propriety, period and even accents. (Goldstein’s aesthetic seems to want to make it a statement about today’s mores; while this idea doesn’t really take, it has its playful side.)
Production’s major coup was bringing in Michael T. Weiss, who scored well in another charismatic turn at the Huntington in last season’s “Burn This!” Here Weiss taps into more of his persona from TV’s “The Pretender.” With his basso growl, sly smile and his mod court look, he is an assured fellow with charm, grace and just the right amount of bad-boy danger.
Weiss is less successful, however, when, late in the play, he loses his heart and evil ways to the pious, porcelain beauty Madame de Tourvel (Yvonne Woods), a woman he originally intended to seduce merely for the challenge.
As Valmont’s libertine partner in sexual manipulation, the Marquise de Merteuil, Tasha Lawrence’s difficulties are the reverse. Thesp begins with a too-obvious villainy, even commonness — so much so that one questions the loyalty, the interest and the sexual attraction Valmont still has for his ex-lover. In an early scene, plentiful double entendres are played with such sophomoric subtlety that one wonders if these are aristocrats or “The Aristocrats” of the dirty-joke film.
However, as the spider’s web becomes more tightly woven, Lawrence finds power in her private pauses, daggered looks and deadly intentions.
Woods makes for a fragile, sympathetic and torn Madame Tourvel — a decidedly different dish who turns Valmont’s heart inside out. As the about-to-be-ex virgin Cecile, both Louisa Krause’s sweetness and her sensuality veer toward the cartoony. Jeff Barry, as a man wooing Cecile, and Alice Duffy, as Valmont’s rich and loving auntie, are standouts. Jennie Israel has fun as one of Valmont’s good-time girls.
Goldstein also scores with the design and sound elements of the show. Erin Chainani’s splendid costumes appropriate haute style from a variety of periods. Valmont looks more attired for an after-Oscars party, while Merteuil looks like she’s going to a dominatrix ball at court.
James Noone shows a slightly abstract touch with his grand staircases, flickering candles and glistening columns. The underscoring and musical cues by composer Loren Toolajian and sound man Benjamin Emerson give the production a sense of cinematic sweep.