Monday, April 21, 2008

The Art and Politics of Seduction

"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theater, April 13, 2008

As much as I admire Laura Linney, when I found out that the Roundabout was reviving "Les Liaisons..." hers was not the first name I thought of.

Foolish me.

In a stylish and glamorous production, sex and intrigue are back on the boards. Director Rufus Norris has assembled, for the most part, a first-rate cast to tell the tale of La Marquise de Merteuil (Ms. Linney) and Le Vicomte de Valmont (Ben Daniels) and those who foolishly stumble into their sights. Valmont is a noble cad, received by proper society but not respected by them. La Marquise, well-widowed, feels slighted over a society issue and seeks revenge by having Valmont seduce Cecile Volanges (Mamie Gummer) the teenage daughter of her offender, already betrothed to a much older man who is also in need of social distress. La Marquise and Valmont have their own romantic history. Disinterested at first because he has set his sights on seducing someone else, La Presidente De Tourvel (Jessica Collins) a beautiful, devoutly religious and devoted wife of another. The Marquise offers an enticement: if Valmont is successful in seducing Cecile, La Marquise will give herself to Valmont for a night of passion.

Turns out that Cecile and her mother Madame de Volanges (Kristine Nielsen) have been invited to stay with Valmont's aunt, Madame de Rosemonde (Sian Phillips), to get Cecile away from the young and unsuitable (meaning no money) Le Chevalier Danceny (Benjamin Walker). The confident Valmont decides to kill two birds with one stone and accepts the challenge.

Plots are twisted, bodices ripped, seductions completed and Valmont wins his challenge. Along the way, however, he and Mme de Tourvel are truly in love with each other. Knowing he would ruin her life, he rejects her. Sword play, dying confessions ensue.

It's really a plot of operatic proportions. I'm amazed at how well it works as a straight play.

Let's start with the supporting roles. Ms. Collins' Mme de Tourvel is a porcelain beauty, but doesn't quite rise to the level of performances around her. Fine-boned and delicate, her accent comes and goes (thanks to my good friend, voice and speech coach Deborah Hecht, no doubt).

Ms. Gummer continues to rack up excellent performances, here in her Broadway debut. Mama Streep should be awfully proud of the child-like petulance we get in Cecile. Her transition from mortified to randy after her first romp with Valmont is delightful. Ms. Nielsen's Mme de Volanges is appropriately befuddled and dotty.

As Mme de Rosemonde, Ms. Phillips was a significant disappointment. Is it just me, or shouldn't all the actors have learned their lines by the time previews have started. Ms. Phillips played not one, but two scenes with pages from her script poorly hidden behind a fan or oversized playing cards. The scenes were near the end of each act - wasn't she studying her lines backstage? Adding insult to injury, she also insisted on wearing her very contemporary spectacles, so she could follow along when other actors are speaking. She practically traced her finger along each line spoken.

Now, it might be one thing, had she been a last minute replacement, but I've heard nothing to that effect and her photo and bio were present in the playbill which certainly requires some lead time. (I remember during last fall's "The Ritz" at Studio 54, Ashlie Atkinson was a last minute replacement, requiring the cancellation of only one preview performance to accommodate learning the role.)

I asked myself, "Where was Marian, Marian Seldes?" (SarahB, that was for you!)

Mr. Walker's Danceny is brash and eager, easily seduced by La Marquise as a ploy to enrage Valmont when she realizes he's falling for Mme de Tourvel.

As Valmont, Mr. Daniels brings to mind a younger (and shorter) Jeremy Irons. He struts and poses like a bantam rooster, sprawling lewdly on the furniture and cutting quite a fine figure during his nude seduction of Cecile. His dying confession to Danceny, however, didn't ring true yet. I'm certain by opening, it will be a heartbreaker.

Ms Linney is triumphant, regal and conspiring, haughty and preening as La Marquise. The fire in her eyes when she realizes Valmont truly loves another is startling. Her stifled reaction to learning of Valmont's death almost makes one feel sorry for her, despite the fact that it's a result of her own manipulations. (There was a moment or two when Lady Bracknell seemed to be speaking, but again I'm sure her performance will be ravishing by opening night.) I feel certain she'll be a contender come Tony time, and as well she should.

Director Norris wields a fine hand in this stylized production, employing baroque singers to evoke the setting of Paris in the 1780's, the calm before the storm, as it were. He employs the dark glass-paneled sets by Scott Pask with simple manipulations to move from salon to salon to bedroom, complemented by heavy silk drapes and swags, all evoking the gilded and mirrored French architecture with ease.

Donald Holder's lighting, however, creates more shadows than illumination. More often than not, it seemed an actor was adjusting his or her blocking to move where a face could be seen. I can't imagine such was intentional.

Katrina Lindsay's lush costumes seemed straight out of a Fragonard painting, subtle and rich silks for all.

1 comment:

Roxie said...

Wait a minute...What's Lady Bracknell doing here? hahaa

Can't wait to see this!