The new Broadway revival of Christopher Hampton’s crowd-pleasing erotic thriller Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which originated at London’s Donmar Warehouse and stars Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber, is puzzling enough to fall into the category of, “What in the world were they thinking?”
Based upon the 1782 novel of the same name (which also inspired the surprisingly entertaining 1999 teen film Cruel Intentions), Les Liaisons Dangereuses revolves around the vicious and manipulative games played by Marquise de Merteuil (McTeer) and Vicomte de Valmont (Schreiber), who aim to dominate and humiliate other members of upper-crust French society.
They come to an arrangement: In exchange for Valmont wooing and bedding both the virginal convent girl Cecile (Elena Kampouris) and the faithful, married Madame de Tourvel (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen), Merteuil will sleep with Valmont, but complications arise that lead to bitter consequences for just about everyone.
Following the original 1987 Broadway staging (led by Lindsay Duncan and the late Alan Rickman), the play received an Oscar-winning 1988 film adaptation (with Glenn Close and John Malkovich) and a fine 2008 revival (with Ben Daniels and Laura Linney) produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company.
Director Josie Rourke has managed to take the fun and suspense out of this well-made drama through bad casting and design choices, leaving a disjointed, dull and dragging production. The scenic design (by Tom Scutt) involves a simultaneously lavish and dilapidated home setting (full of chandeliers and drapes) that is emptied out bit by bit. It is complimented by Mark Henderson’s ghostly lighting and Michael Bruce’s choral music. Although stylish and initially intriguing, the visual concept is too distracting and wholly ineffective since the play requires multiple indoor and outdoor settings.
Schreiber, who used to regularly take on Shakespeare roles at the Delacorte Theatre, is egregiously miscast. His Valmont is disengaged, depressed and stodgy instead of sexy and exciting. It’s a softly intense performance that is but totally at odds with the play’s elevated style. He also looks uncomfortable and terribly out of place in a ponytail wig and dressy attire. In an ideal world, Schreiber would be cast in a contemporary adaptation of the play where he would be free to look like a tough guy and sweat through a t-shirt.
McTeer gives a striking performance as the devilish Merteuil in which she delivers every line with authority, but she has zero chemistry with Schreiber. Kampouris is overly petulant and quite irritating as Cecile. The real find of this production is Sorensen, a Danish actress, who makes for a vulnerable and beautiful Tourvel. (You may recognize her from small parts in Pitch Perfect 2 and Game of Thrones.) Her scenes with Schreiber are tenderly played and the most compelling of this marred production.