Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a story that would be best served with popcorn and red wine. Written by Christopher Hampton and based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel of the same name, Liaisons opened at the Antaeus Theatre Company in Los Angeles this weekend in a sexy, provocative production that explores the despicable behavior of what we would now refer to as “the one percent” in a modern, stylized fashion.
Directed by Robin Larsen, Liaisons tells the story of ex-lovers and rivals Marquise de Merteuil (Reiko Aylesworth) and Vicomte de Valmont (Henri Lubatti). Diabolical and more than willing to commit any offense and ruthlessly use their sexuality to manipulate people and situations to suit their needs, the story begins with Merteuil proposing a scheme to Valmont, primarily for her own amusement. If Valmont can work his way into the bed of Cecile (Elizabeth Rian), a virgin who has only recently debuted in society after being raised in a convent, he will win a night of passion with Merteuil. Valmont has his own similar deception in mind—he has set his sights on Madame de Tourvel (Lindsay LaVanchy), the devout wife of a member of Parliament who is currently a houseguest of his aunt. Merteuil, assuming he will never succeed with Tourvel, agrees to the same terms for this bet, adding that Valmont must provide written evidence that the seduction has occurred.
From here, things only grow more and more convoluted. Both Merteuil and Valmont manipulate every circumstance to suit their needs, and also take every opportunity to raise the stakes. This story has been adapted many times—there’s the 1988 Academy Award-winning film Dangerous Liaisons, as well as the 1999 cult favorite young adult adaptation Cruel Intentions. While the action here takes place in France in the 1780s, Antaeus’s production has hints of a modern feel, mostly evident in the costumes (Jocelyn Hublau Parker) and in the stylized music, projections, and transitions. Between scenes, silent, mini tableaus relating to the action unfold on the sides of the stage, adding to the soapy, melodramatic feel—for example, after learning a character is pregnant, we see her quietly bolting for the bathroom, overcome by nausea, as another character observes, perplexed.
There are absolutely themes here that still feel relevant in 2017. The entire story hinges on the petty problems of the elite, and the drama they create essentially out of boredom. The characters’ views are laughably ridiculous—”When it comes to marriage, one man is as good as the next,” Merteuil ponders. The play also flirts with some interesting commentary on gender politics. While much of the story is about manipulating women in a way that is unsettling (more on that later), Merteuil is very forthcoming about how being a woman has forced her to think smarter and faster than the men in her life and learn to be more manipulative and cunning. “Women are obliged to be far more skillful than men,” she insists—although it’s difficult to applaud such seemingly feminist thinking from a woman who concocts elaborate plots to harm and humiliate other women for her own amusement.
As usual, Antaeus is doing fine work here. The actors (as always, all roles are partner-cast—I saw “The Libertines” for this review) are strong, the design elements solid, and efforts were certainly made in the production to bring the story into the 21st century and keep things interesting throughout the rather lengthy running time of two hours and 30 minutes. But there is ultimately much about the story that cannot help but feel dated. Perhaps I was influenced by the influx of sexual assault and harassment stories in the news cycle these past few weeks, but it is difficult to watch Valmont assault and rape Cecile and yet be presented as a sly yet charming playboy the audience is meant to chuckle at. It is even worse to see Cecile be convinced by Merteuil, a fellow woman, that what she experienced was not rape—”did you say no?” she even asks, in a line that sadly still strikes a chord. While these characters can be entertaining to watch in a mindless way, there is really nothing to connect to emotionally, or to root for—it’s more of a sudsy, provocative spectacle that begins to disintegrate if you examine its intricacies too closely. What was so fun about Cruel Intentions was that it did not take itself too seriously. The source material, however, does, and no number of carefully placed dramatic stares can make up for how grating it can be to simply watch terrible people be terrible.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses runs at Antaeus’s Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale through December 10th. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. The running time is two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased at www.Antaeus.org. For a schedule of performances, including which actors will perform on which dates, click here.