Novel by Choderlos de Laclos
Adapted by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Vincent Brady
Exchange Theatre
Center House
Seattle Center
305 Harrison St. Seattle, WA 98109 / (425) 254-0090

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

Choderlos de Laclos' 18th Century epistolary novel, "Les Liasons Dangereuses" has had an extraordinarily long and vigorous life, in part because of several popular film adaptations. In part it's because of this fine 1985 stage adaptation by Christopher Hampton. Mostly, though, I think it's remained so appealing because it's a rich, seductive and insightful engagement with the intimate lives of aristocratic, sexually rapacious and amoral men and women, whose idle games and random seductions are an elaborate dance to the polite music of personal and ethical disaster. For all the decorative opportunities of this rococo world, the drama here is all about character, and it is, in every sense, intimate. I think that's why it works best on stage, best in a very small space, where the most subtle expressions, most quietly whispered lies, most delicate touches can have the greatest dimension. It's an actor's play, where inflection, gesture, internal conflict and emotional gains and losses mark all the most important objectives of the story's action.

This admirable production, directed with great care and respect by Vincent Brady, mostly succeeds in holding our closest attention, and in keeping the subtle arc of the drama clear and affecting. The performances, which are all of high quality, succeed in creating the world of the play, the dynamics of the relationships, and the complexity of the intrigue. Where it falls a bit short, and it is a rather deeper, darker level of characterization, is in showing us the ravages of such duplicity, the coruscating wound of moral indifference, and the soul-devouring pain of feeling emotional authenticity after you've already compromised and debauched the very concept.

That is particularly apparent to me in the role of Valmont, the sexual swordsman whose ambition in this play is to seduce and ruin the Lady Tourvel, both to avenge a petty slight, and as an amusement to be shared with his friend, former lover and disingenuous rival, the Marquise de Merteuil. Roy Stanton plays Valmont with assurance and dangerous charm, but there is more of a sense that he is a man who acts badly and without remorse, than one who relishes his indecency and who finds delight and gratification in his lack of emotional connection. That is a particular problem in the second act, when genuine feelings become a game he cannot master, and we need to see that what he has already forfeited is a loss that he had not accounted for, and cannot regain now that he appreciates its true value. Oddly, there's a better sense of that wicked glee of blithe immorality in the small role of Azolan, a friend, excellently played by Ethan Savaglio. Overall, the women are more successful in this production. Peggy Gannon is marvelous as Merteuil, with warm, dark vocal tones like an expensive, well-aged brandy, and a slight, enigmatic smile that sweetly masks her anger at both the costs and necessary means of being a powerful woman in that age. She's also the most sensuous woman on stage, and that is critically important in this erotically charged economy, where her wealth is measured and expended in her amorous liaisons. At the opposite pole of eros, but in an equally well-crafted performance, Randy Hale creates a subtle, emotionally constrained and fearful Mme. Volange, whose conquest by Valmont marks his own doom, and whose own surrender to desire has just the complexity and transparency this play requires. As her daughter, the innocent and vulnerable Cecile, Jennifer Perrault is suitably inhibited and naïve, and while she clearly relishes the sexuality that Valmont unleashes in her, there isn't quite enough sense of how that changes everything in her emotional reality. There isn't enough of an indication of whether this will be the point at which she'll become like Merteuil, or disavow her own eroticism completely, and given that choice, how great the demon in her is that it will require such extremity to overcome.

Vincent Brady's direction is particularly effective at accenting the literacy and intelligence of Hampton's script, and he allows the action to move more as a waltz than a gavotte. The play seems long, and I think that has less to do with the pace than with the lack of dramatic intricacy in the second act. We really need to see the cost of living in the world they've created a bit more acutely, and we need to feel Valmont's personal crisis a bit more sharply. In general, though, this is a solid piece of work, and he has balanced the talents of his strong cast very well.

The physical production is intimate and attractive. Costumes by Morgan Miller are especially sumptuous and beautifully detailed. The sound design by Andrew Hamilton sets exactly the right emotional and period tone, and Ian Johnston's lighting was both warm and well-balanced. The set pieces, which were attractive enough, were not important enough to require the extensive re-setting between scenes, which both delayed and distracted from the flow of the play.

"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" is a brilliant and compelling drama of sexuality, morality, society and individuals confronted by the consequences of their desires and values. This less than perfect production is nonetheless quite satisfying and engaging. There is not so great a distance between these elaborate drawing rooms and the conversations that take place every day in countless singles' bars. That is sad and relevant, and a sobering commentary on the unchanging dynamics of love and lust and the human capacity for self-delusion and interpersonal deception.

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