What did people ever do before iPhone games? In 18th century Paris, where the sophisticates in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” lived, members of the upper classes passed the time playing parlor games: Savage sport like “Ravish the Virgin” and “Seduce the Loyal Wife,” at which the bored aristocrats in this seductive play (adapted by Christopher Hampton from a 1782 French novel by Choderlos de Laclos) prove uncommonly adept. The imposing Janet McTeer and a sturdy if curiously miscast Liev Schreiber are the principal players in the stylish Donmar Warehouse production currently at the Booth Theater.
Better banish memories of the sexy Stephen Frears film starring Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and a malevolent John Malkovich. And try not to think of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s definitive 1988 treatment starring Lindsay Duncan and that silken snake, Alan Rickman. In this version, which originated at London’s Donmar Warehouse under the direction of its artistic director, Josie Rourke, wit and style count more than passion.
The plot is perversity itself. Out of sheer boredom, the manipulative Marquise de Merteuil (McTeer) challenges her ex-lover, the notorious roué Vicomte de Valmont (Schreiber), to deflower the virginal Cecile Volanges (Elena Kampouris), who is fresh out of the convent and due to be married.
Valmont would prefer to seduce the faithful Madame de Tourvel (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, in a role that earned an Oscar nomination for Michelle Pfeiffer), but a challenge from Merteuil is tempting. And when McTeer throws down the gauntlet, he just can’t resist.
So far, the potential victims are no more than pawns in this sexual power game. The real contest is between Valmont and Merteuil, whose competition is only an excuse to inflame their own passion, an entertainment they probably frequently indulge. These two use the sexual seduction of others as an aphrodisiac, and as the Marquise de Merteuil lets it be known, sexual power is the only power available to women of the period, no matter how highborn.
When Merteuil realizes that Valmont is no longer playing their game — that he has become infatuated with his prey and no longer loves her — McTeer’s silent reaction is devastating. As she sinks into her chair, her face registers the total collapse of her facade. It’s more than the loss of her power over a well-matched game player. It’s the loss of love.
Valmont has his own piercing insight, when he acknowledges that he has fallen in love with Madame de Tourvel. Schreiber gives it his best shot, but the sensitive feelings of a charming libertine don’t register in the same way that his more animal appetites do.
Not that animal appetites are quite the thing for this play. Schreiber is a strong actor and a studly kind of male, and despite a constricting costume and skull-pinching wig, he exudes a modern manliness that hardly suits the effete Valmont.
But while director Rourke’s casting seems a bit bizarre, her staging is superb. Scene changes are especially eye-catching, with gorgeously costumed extras gliding on and off, humming to themselves. Aside from beautifying the scene, their underlying purpose is to gradually strip the set of its splendid furnishings, until at the end all that’s left is an empty canvas hanging on the wall to signify the empty lives of the characters.
And as visual symbols go, nothing could be more definitive than the lights flickering and burning out in the chandeliers that illuminated this play.