It’s a testament to the wit, ingenuity and economy of Christopher Hampton’s distillation of Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary 1782 novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” that this delicious tournament of sex and power never gets old — regardless of the indelible memory of the original Royal Shakespeare Company production, the toothsome Stephen Frears film or any of its subsequent adaptations, derivations or imitations. In Roundabout’s stylish Broadway revival, Hampton’s pungent brew of aristocratic mores, salacious scandal, high culture and low innuendo proves resilient — despite some heavy-handed directorial choices and one crucial piece of miscasting.
In Howard Davies’ 1986 premiere for the RSC (which also played Broadway), designer Bob Crowley cleverly nestled France’s decadent ancien regime in a defiled boudoir. Scott Pask’s multifunctional set for Rufus Norris’ staging is a mirrored hall that both reflects and reveals, dominated by a single grand chandelier. Imposing and lugubrious, the space is brushed by Donald Holder’s burnished lighting and cloaked in more artful draping than an entire season of “Project Runway.” Desires and deceits can just as easily be exposed as concealed here.
If ever there were two figures whose heartless unaccountability could serve to usher in the coming revolution suggested in the play’s final scene, it’s la Marquise de Merteuil (Laura Linney) and le Vicomte de Valmont (Ben Daniels). Occasional lovers engaged in seduce-and-destroy one-upmanship, they are the principal players in this lethal chess game set in the mid-1780s.
Both for amusement and revenge, Merteuil requests Valmont’s help to humiliate a former lover by having him deflower the man’s handpicked, convent-educated intended, Cecile Volanges (Mamie Gummer). Valmont dismisses the task as unchallenging, instead setting his sights on Madame de Tourvel (Jessica Collins), a religious married woman famous for her virtue.
His ambitious project is not to break down her prejudices but to make her surrender to him while maintaining her beliefs. Only when Cecile’s interfering mother (Kristine Nielsen) obstructs him does Valmont agree to add Merteuil’s assignment to his own.
Despite avoiding any “Masterpiece Theater” stuffiness in the actors’ conversational delivery, Norris initially appears to put a starchy stamp on the material, allowing dead air to punctuate the dialogue. But this is soon revealed to be a choice tailored in particular around Linney’s approach to Merteuil.
All cool poise and control, Linney moves and speaks with regal slowness, rarely allowing herself more than a suggestion of a self-satisfied smile, raising her voice in anger only twice in the play and seldom bothering to bestow eye contact on her subject. At first it seems she’s not having enough fun with the role’s lip-smacking villainy, but her attitude makes sense for a woman who has parlayed her impenetrable detachment and knack for listening into a supreme art.
“I always knew I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own,” she tells Valmont in the glittering monologue in which the Marquise details her self-invention.
Unlike his screenplay for Frears, Hampton’s less explicatory text here is more oblique in dealing with Merteuil’s comeuppance. In Linney’s minutely measured performance, her defeat is less in the inevitability of public rejection than in the crushing realization that she has failed ever to inspire love.
Daniels takes the opposite path. A strutting cock whose insouciant body language and lascivious manner seem to advertise that his reputation as an unscrupulous roue is well earned, his Valmont struggles to maintain his insinuating bravado when love unexpectedly cracks his armor.
The big problem in the drama’s central triumvirate is the object of that love. Collins is sorely inadequate and unaffecting as Madame de Tourvel; her flat reading recalls the knowingly anachronistic Hollywood tack of rendering period pieces accessible via contemporary performance styles in films like “Ever After” and “A Knight’s Tale.” Whether or not it’s deliberate, the approach is dead wrong.
Grace, piety and vulnerability — all are lacking in Collins’ work here, which never comes close to the imprint left on the role by Michelle Pfeiffer in Frears’ film. Never better before or since, Pfeiffer was like porcelain, glowing from within and exquisitely delicate, while Collins is a blank, suggesting neither a spiritual inner life nor rapturous love. It’s a sign of Daniels’ command that after winning her heart and then cruelly breaking with her on Merteuil’s instructions, we feel more for the torment masked by Valmont’s coldness than for Tourvel’s fatal wound.
Collins might have been a better fit as malleable Cecile, but that role is served nicely by Gummer. Bringing winsome physical comedy to the girl’s seesawing between clueless inexperience and uncorked sexual appetite, she amusingly echoes the Marquise’s description of her: “She has no character and no morals, she’s altogether delicious.” Mother and daughter are well-paired, with Nielsen bringing bug-eyed daffiness and fretful propriety to Madame de Volanges.
Elsewhere in the solid supporting cast, Derek Cecil scores sly laughs as Valmont’s valet, almost as vain and louche as his boss. And the invaluable Sian Phillips makes every moment count as Valmont’s wealthy aunt, a seemingly dithery old dear who is far more perceptive than she appears.
Not a director who always favors subtle strokes, Norris is clearly attracted to darkness, debauchery and decay, as seen in his productions of “Festen,” “Cabaret” and even a sinister “Sleeping Beauty.” His malevolent flamboyance is sometimes a distraction here, notably in the overworked, eerie soundscape of evil, reverberating laughter and poorly sung Handel. And the disintegration of the drapery in the final scene — unraveling into a tangled web of ropes no doubt destined to ensnare the dissolute aristocracy — is too obvious.
Considering it was constructed out of a novel of letters in which the duplicitous architects of the conflict are never even in the same room, this is a virtuoso display of dramatic structuring. The beauty of Hampton’s work lies in the crispness of its cruelty (the Marquise’s favorite word), the incisiveness of its epigrams and the piercing understanding of its characters. The language itself is sufficiently rich and vivid that it requires no illustrative tricks.
One visual flourish that really does work, however, is in Katrina Lindsay’s stunning costumes. Pairing opulent elegance with lived-in movability, the clothes stick mainly to a palette of muted golds, ivories, blacks and silvers until Merteuil appears in dusty scarlet to receive news of the kill, her malice fully unsheathed for the first time. It might be the oldest dramatic device in the costumer’s handbook, but nothing declares war like a blood-red battle uniform.