Before Dangerous Liasons was a film, it was a novel, of course, but it was also a hit play: British playwright Christopher Hampton based his 1985 play on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos 1782 novel about two rivals at the pinnacle of prerevolutionary Parisian society who delight in using sex as a weapon to manipulate and humiliate others. The play was a huge success for the Royal Shakespeare Company — it had subsequent productions on the West End and on Broadway in 1987 — and Hampton ended up writing the screenplay for the 1988 film adaptation.
Perhaps because the lead roles in the film were so memorably enacted by Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, the play itself hasn’t been produced much in the intervening years. But theaters have recently begun to dust off the old script to see if they can mount new productions.
There was a 2008 Broadway revival with Laura Linney and Ben Daniels in the leads, and a successful production in Sydney, that indicated artists and audiences could be ready to approach a live production of the show with a fresh pair of eyes. Atlanta’s Actor’s Express is taking that chance, opening its 2014–15 season with a production of the play Les Liaisons Dangereuses (through October 5).
The Marquise de Merteuil (Park Krausen) and the Vicomte de Valmont (Paul Hester) are former lovers who scheme to bring about the downfall of others through their immoral sexual machinations. Because the film production was pretty memorable, it’s an uphill battle for a theater to produce the play if there ever was one.
It’s been 25 years since the film was released, and it may be about that long since I’ve seen it, but putting it aside was actually surprisingly harder than I would have imagined. As the play unfolded, I remembered not just Close and Malkovich’s interpretations of their roles, but I recalled that Keanu Reeves, Uma Thurman and Swoozie Kurtz were all in the film, as well, something I hadn’t thought about in years. I remembered entire scenes, intonations, gestures.
Still, Krausen manages to put an interestingly wicked yet sympathetic spin on the character. I remember the Marquise as played by Glenn Close in the film is immoral and conniving, almost sociopathic. Krausen’s Marquise is all of those things, but she’s a more understandable and simpatica cynic for the audience.
The gratification and thrill of wielding power, the nihilism, the bruised ego are all troublingly recognizable here. Human society is hypocritical, cruel and blisteringly stupid, so why shouldn’t one benefit from learning how to manipulate it? It’s a believable search for knowledge, existential resentment and rebellion against women’s unfair position in society.
Hester as Valmont captures the cold-blooded, slithery, smirky nature of the character (he does this so thoroughly that I never quite believed that he had fallen for the virtuous Madame de Tourvel). We enjoy watching the manipulators succeed and then we enjoy watching their plans start to crumble. The slightly different ending of the play is more intriguingly ambiguous, if less dramatic, than the ending of the movie. Shannon Robert’s set design appropriately enough has the intimacy of a bed chamber and the in-the-round set-up of a boxing ring, and Mary Parker’s candlelike lighting repeats those ideas (though some characters’ faces were occasionally in darkness when I wanted to see reactions).
While the play doesn’t feel like it’s crammed with more incident or detail than the movie, it’s much longer. Act I was upwards of an hour-and-a-half (I’d assumed about midway through that they were going to perform the whole show with no intermission), but a pause and Act II had the evening clocking in at almost three hours.
I don’t mind a long play, but it’s problematic here because we already know how things end up. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is salacious fun — the plot and characters feel compellingly alive and contemporary, even zeitgeisty — though the length of the play and memories of the classic film may have viewers wondering why we should be returning to this story at the theater.