If an author ever wanted to do research for a self-help text called “How to Destroy Lives and Wreck Relationships,” he would find everything he needed in Christopher Hampton’s tale of amoral bad seeds and their avaricious schemes. The new Blank Theater Company version preserves the wit and wisdom of this pungent play, and director Daniel Henning’s deft, supple direction maintains clarity when the overlapping plots begin piling up.
This “Liaisons” sometimes careens too sharply into a cartoon flavor, but it has the advantage of a droll and deadly Marquise de Merteuil. As portrayed by Robin Riker, Merteuil possesses the charm and radiance to hide her heartlessness. “I thought betrayal was your favorite word,” says her poisonous soulmate Valmont,” and she responds, “No … cruelty.”
Cruelty and revenge are behind Madame de Merteuil’s demand that notorious ladies’ man Valmont deflower the innocent, convent-raised Cecile (Annie Abrams), bride-to-be of an old enemy. He initially rejects that request in favor of seducing virtuous married woman Madame de Tourvel (Ginger Williams). Before long, Valmont is manipulating the tortured Tourvel into an affair against her will, creeping into Cecile’s bedroom and pretending to be helpful pal to Le Chevalier Danceny (Allen Evangelista), Cecile’s boyishly ardent suitor.
Starzyk’s Valmont is tall, wears tuxedos with a gentleman’s flair and approaches the challenges of sexual carnage, lying and blackmail with exuberant anticipation. Valmont is defined as a man who never opens his mouth without calculating what damage he can do, and Starzyk doesn’t always make him evil enough to match that definition. This is a matter of interpretation rather than ability, since the actor’s key scene — in which he throws aside Madame de Tourvel and keeps repeating, “It’s beyond my control” — blazes with brutality.
Love scenes have an uneven flavor, veering too broadly between farce and sexuality. Valmont’s near-rape of Cecile reflects the appropriate sensual menace, but at other moments, he sweeps women off their feet in a campy, posed manner, as though spoofing figures in a silent film.
As pathetic Madame de Tourvel, Williams is clearly not a classical actress, and it’s to her credit that she transcends the limitation by conveying Tourvel’s pain. The writing has always made Tourvel one-dimensionally tormented, and Williams plays against this relentlessly tragic quality with a light, feminine sweetness that fully justifies Valmont’s passion.
Irene Roseen brings dignity and tenderness to Mme. de Rosemonde, Valmont’s realistic, indulgent aunt. She matches Zoe Caldwell’s graceful portrayal of another wise, aging character — Madame Armfeldt in 2004’s “A Little Night Music” at the Los Angeles Opera — showing her stature when cautioning Tourvel about men and their inevitable faithlessness. Dana Peterson (doubling as costume designer and supplying a breathtaking award-worthy fashion parade) — is equally convincing as Cecile’s anxious mother.
Joanna Kelly, more than anyone else in the cast, puts across the pleasures of lust as Valmont’s courtesan friend, and Abrams makes an innocent, then hungrily curious Cecile. Evangelista is properly effusive, if too much of a puppy dog, playing lover to Cecile and Merteuil.
Set design by Joanne Baker and Ryan Cassidy is notable for its opulent detail, and Randy Kovitz stages an exciting climactic sword fight. The swordplay is a credibility stretch, since director Henning has moved the period from the 1700s to 1920s France. Overall, however, his time transition works well, since duplicity, jealousy and unrequited love are timeless emotions.