If it were a musical, "What's Love Got to Do With It?" could well be the overture for "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," an intriguingly nasty play about the idle rich of the 18th century, who, as today's kids might say, need to get a life.
Based on Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 epistolary novel of the same name, the play uses pre-meditated sexual gamesmanship as a daily ritual to take a thinly veiled swipe at the French aristocracy. The story tragically illustrates what happens when promiscuous people are beset by boredom, women have no control over their lives, and the ruling class has too much power. All this in a little over two hours.
Playwright Christopher Hampton adapted the novel for the stage in 1987, and the following year, turned it into a film with Glenn Close and John Malkovich as the sexual predators, and Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman as their prey. This season, "Les Liaisons" is on Broadway again, in a new production with Laura Linney, Ben Daniels, Jessica Collins and Mamie Gummer.
Linney plays the part of La Marquise de Merteuil, a woman bent on revenge now that one of her lovers has been affianced to the young convent girl, Cecile. She wants the girl deflowered so that the groom-to-be will reject her, and to accomplish this, asks her former lover and friend, Le Vicomte de Valmont, to do the job. But he turns down the seduction as too easy, claiming "she'd be on her back before you'd unwrapped the first bunch of flowers."
However, the prospect of a double seduction makes him rethink his initial refusal. The solidly married Le Presidente de Tourvel is staying with his aunt, and Valmont bets the Marquise that he can seduce both, and the game is on. While the Marquise is the one who instigates these sexual games, it is actually Valmont who has all the fun.
Played with grand insouciance and evil glee by Daniels, Valmont provides us with guilty pleasure as we watch him turn the frightened Cecile in all her naï¿½ve blondeness into an insatiable sex kitten. And though his duplicitous pronouncements of love to Tourvel are also filled with humor, Hampton's script never lets you forget that Valmont is out to do harm -- "I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that's important to her." Little did he expect that this seduction would be his Waterloo (so to speak).
While it's easy to get deeply caught up in all the sexual activity, even to using a scorecard to keep track of who's bedding whom, it's necessary to also step back and get a larger perspective of what's really happening. Love is never mentioned and yet love is everywhere in this story. The Marquise talks of love with scorn, saying it's "something you use," yet her feelings for Valmont go deep. Valmont moves among his lovers and prostitutes, the concept of love non-existent, yet manages to get caught on its sharpest hooks.
Daniels is a superb Valmont, and unlike Malkovich, has softer edges, making his ultimate comeuppance anticipated and believable. Mamie Gummer's comedic timing and delicious self-abandon steal the scenes when she's on stage. And veteran actor Sian Phillips, as Valmont's mother and Tourvel's refuge, walks a fine line trying to protect two people she loves, lamenting that "to hope to be made happy by love is a certain cause of grief."
The weak actors, unfortunately, are Linney and Collins. Linney's icy portrayal of the Marquise is on the right track, but the coldness has frozen her whole performance instead of just her heart. Collins' Tourvel can best be described as generic, and though she suffers greatly at the hands of Valmont, it all seems so intellectual.
On balance, though, this is a fascinating show -- a period drama with beautiful costumes, an intelligent script, a riveting plot, elegant language, and dangerous characters. It's worth seeing for all of this, but be sure to rent the DVD.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
"Very imbalanced revival." & "Unfortunately no one else in this revival approaches Mr. Danielsï¿½s level of complexity, including Ms. Linney, a wonderful actress who has been shoehorned into a part out of her natural range and is perceptibly pinched."
New York Times
"Director Rufus Norris ("Festen") keeps the intricate plot lines flowing, and his smart use of music (servants double as singers) adds texture and commentary. Though the story gets sluggish in the long first act, it gains momentum in the second half."
New York Daily News
"What is there not to like in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"? As revived last night by the Roundabout, Christopher Hampton's play is sensual, oddly naughty and totally, impassively immoral."
New York Post
"The swank production that opened yesterday at the American Airlines Theatre presents a delectable adults-only treat."
"This Liaisons provides naughty, provocative fun."
"Too much ice and not enough warmth ï¿½ eventually proves numbing."
"The current New York revival, starring Laura Linney and Britain's Ben Daniels, allows this great dark flower of evil to almost fully bloom."
"Your appetite for decadence will govern your response to 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses.'" & "If you don't worry too much about holding onto the plot through all its twists and turns, you may enjoy this bath of French decadence, as seen through British eyes."
The Journal News
"'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' is a terrifically intelligent and powerful play, and this superb production allows the audience to experience it in its full dramatic glory."
"Enormously entertaining production."
"The production well deserves an extension beyond its planned July closing date."
"In Roundabout's stylish Broadway revival, Hampton's pungent brew of aristocratic mores, salacious scandal, high culture and low innuendo proves resilient -- despite some heavy-handed directorial choices and one crucial piece of miscasting."