There are better reasons to strap on a bustle than Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Something, perhaps the popularity of the film versions, has convinced theatre producers that people want to see this play. But while both the 1988 movie based on Hampton's dramatization and 1989's Valmont were small masterpieces drawn from Choderlos de Laclos' infamous 18th-century novel, effective stage performances are difficult to mount. The piece requires, above all, strong casting and opulent costuming to succeed.
Given those elements, Hampton's elaborate adaptation can be a clever pageant. The play pairs 18th-century syntax with contemporary language (there are enough subordinate clauses here to choke a talking mule). Navigating the verbose dialogue and several pounds of foundation garments at the same time is a mean task for a seasoned actor. Saddling a group of Arizona State University theatre arts students with those chores seems cruel and unusual and has resulted in a near miss.
De Laclos' novel concerns a pair of decadent aristocrats who wile away the days just prior to the French Revolution by toying with the sex lives of their friends. The Marquise de Merteuil, after being rebuffed by some young stud, enlists her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont, to help her exact revenge. Valmont agrees to deflower Cecile, the man's fiancee, in exchange for one night of sex with the Marquise, for whom he still carries a torch. Meanwhile, he's busy seducing Madame de Tourvel, a pious married woman who is a friend of his aunt's. When Valmont falls in love with Tourvel, the Marquise withdraws her promise and all hell breaks loose.
Playwright Hampton makes the most of de Laclos' convoluted story. The play's original West End production pulled down every imaginable theatre prize, including the London Evening Standard Drama Award and the Laurence Olivier Award, and its 1987 Broadway version merited a Tony nomination.
ASU's earnest production features a couple of nice performances and some imaginative staging, but not a whole lot else. Joel David Maurice is an imposing Valmont. He plays the cutthroat Casanova as slightly foppish, using his deep, resonant voice (he sounds like the young Orson Welles) to project masculinity. Melissa Anne Jones is convincingly childlike as Cecile, all flowing hair and pouty naivete. The only flaw in her performance is that she remains sweet, even after Valmont turns her into a sex toy.
As Cecile's mother, Martha Slater turns in the best performance of the lot. As written, Madame de Volanges is a flimsy character who spends most of her time onstage wringing her hands and weeping. But Slater brings an urgency to the part, a quiet hysteria that drew me away from the principals during each of her scenes with them. I left wishing that Slater had been cast in the lead role of the Marquise.
Instead, Kathleen Butler Casselman takes a stab at it. Her languid portrayal makes it hard to imagine that this thoughtlessly evil woman is the source of the great passion that fuels the story. In Casselman's defense, she is saddled with a role with absolutely no dimension; the Marquise is merely a petulant French pastry, a temper tantrum waiting to happen. (Imagine Cruella DeVil with a libido.) Casselman is left to drag her heaving bosom from scene to scene, giggling maliciously and plotting various debaucheries.
Yoko Kubota is disappointing as Madame de Tourvel; Kubota's pronunciation of English renders much of her dialogue incoherent.
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Overshadowing even the worthwhile acting is a parade of chambermaids and porters, who maneuver some nicely choreographed scene changes and to whom director Victoria Holloway has handed some entertaining bits of business. In fact, the servants' comic exits and a tense, acrobatic sword fight toward the end of the second act are this show's finest moments.
Costume designer Donna Bartz has crowded Catherine White's ornate stage with yards of velveteen, piles of powdered wigs, and more lace hankies than the lingerie department at Bergdorf's. But her palette is awash with muted tones that draw no distinction between the good guys and the bad guys onstage. (There must have been a red dress somewhere in the Marquise's closet.) In a play about good and evil, that's a missed opportunity.
Then again, a production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that's too gorgeous risks losing the irritable tension that the play demands. Even without excess, ASU's theatre department has produced a diversion that's neither particularly dangerous nor especially entertaining.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses continues through Saturday, October 5, at Lyceum Theatre on Arizona State University campus in Tempe. For more details, see Theatre listing in Thrills.