Win—or Die

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is one of the great art works of the twentieth century.  Cynical and sentimental, personal and political, every line drips with subtext, and each moment is written with the same precision that the two principals, Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer) and Vicomte de Valmont (Liev Schreiber), bring to their games of sexual conquest.

What a delight, then, that the Donmar Warehouse has imported a production worthy of Christopher Hampton’s text.  The stage is both lavish and dilapidated, the walls peeling and the floor littered with paintings as if the French aristocracy were already preparing to flee the Revolution—and indeed, by the end of the play, most of the set has disappeared.  Largely lit by candles, director Josie Rourke has flawlessly choreographed the action so that at moments we forget we are watching a devastating tragedy rather than a bedroom farce.

Ms. McTeer is thoroughly brilliant as the wounded Marquise.  Though Mr. Shreiber fills out his costume, suggesting his Vicomte is a genuine bon vivant, Ms. McTeer has a gauntness that indicates she sups on cruelty rather than conquest.  Early in the play, after a particularly delicious line, she traces her mouth with her fingernail, savoring the wickedness of her double entendre.  But Ms. McTeer also brings a vulnerability to the role that I have not seen before; towards the end of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, her steely exterior is shattered by her failure, and her betrayal of weakness—both for its pathos and its unintentional, painful disclosure of feeling—is profoundly moving.

Mr. Schreiber, though not the most intuitive choice for Valmont (Jews who ride motorcycles don’t scream eighteenth-century French nobility), is also powerful and—even more impressive—surprising.  Unlike his predecessors in the part, he does not reveal the his love for Madame de Tourvel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) by allowing chinks to appear in his armor.  A traditional interpretation, for example, would give way to cracks in the voice or to verbal stumbles as his battle with Merteuil intensifies (the repetition of “It is beyond my control” being the key moment to showcase this faltering).  Instead, Mr. Schreiber implies that the Vicomte’s drinking becomes a necessity rather than a pleasure, and by the time he is trading swings with Le Chevalier Danceny (Raffi Barsoumian), he can barely stand.

“Hopes and fears, passion and suspense,” the Vicomte says of his seduction of Tourvel to the Marquise.  “Even if you were in the theatre, what more could you ask?”  The answer: absolutely nothing.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses runs through January 8th at the Booth Theatre.  222 W. 45th Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 45 minutes.  One intermission.

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