There’s a scintillating idea behind Michael McKeever’s “Dangerous”: Set the self-destructive corruption of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” in the waning “Cabaret” days of the Weimar Republic, and give it a gay twist. Both periods share a sexual and moral decadence in which the privileged blithely dance in the encroaching shadow of a brutish revolution whose violence will sweep away both selfish excess and sophisticated elegance. World-premiering in Florida, the play’s production and script need further finetuning, but it’s nonetheless a thought-provoking, at times thrilling deconstruction.
If McKeever searches no wider thematically than the original, neither do the countless artistically satisfying riffs on, say, “Othello.” Besides, “Dangerous” is a harrowing descent in its own right. The playwright has hewed closely to the narrative of Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel and Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play, but the writer is not just self-consciously finding imaginative analogues between his setting and the original; instead he deftly creates a believable, unforced parallel universe. He also has a feel for wicked Wildean dialogue.
“Dangerous” traces the labyrinthine intrigues of former lovers Victor (Michael McKenzie), the elegant game-player, and Alec (David A. Rudd), the voracious seducer of both sexes. They challenge each other to sexual conquests and then abandon their prey once the victim falls in love. Having surrendered their humanity for transient gratification, they are compelled to destroy decency in others.
Alec plans to ruin nascent feminist Lena (Marta Reiman): “Simply put, I want her to love me and hate herself for it. I want her to betray everything she believes in, and not be able to do a thing to stop herself.” But it backfires as he finds himself succumbing to genuine human emotion — making him vulnerable to Victor’s secret plan for revenge. In a shattering moment of self-loathing, McKeever has Alec destroy the pure adoration of his own true love, simply, “Because I can.”
While the script needs cutting, McKeever has omitted a key motivation from the novel and play that drives the evening — the seducer desperately wants to resume an affair with the game-player, giving the latter the power to manipulate him.
Most of the performances are adequate, but perhaps because these affected characters are themselves playing roles and wearing masks, almost everyone is visibly acting. As Alec’s clear-eyed grandmother, the superb Harriet Oser is the exception. The two leads put their roles over, but they could stand to amp up the delicious venality. And McKeever might have assisted by allowing them to sneak in exposition a little more smoothly.
Clive Cholerton fluidly stages a play in which people mostly sit around talking to each other. Nudity of both sexes is appropriately used to express the vulnerability lovers feel in the boudoir. Tim Bennett’s sets evoke Paul Klee’s cubist works in indigo and russet as film clips of the era play on the walls.