By Patrick Hurley
In the years just preceding the French Revolution, an era of aristocratic decadence reigned supreme. Christopher Hampton’s deliciously acerbic Les Liaisons Dangereuses, playing now at Antaeus Theatre Company, resonates quite profoundly against our contemporary concerns of upper-class privilege through its use of biting satire.
Motives for these characters are as simplistically awful as to be Shakespearean in scope, and just as much fun to watch unravel.
The Marquise De Merteuil (Elyse Mirto) is a cunning and manipulative woman of means, a widow who’s proclivities do not sway toward a second marriage. After being jilted by a man, she enlists the help of her former lover Vicomte De Valmont (Scott Ferrara) in order to exact her revenge. The plan is for Valmont to seduce the fiancé of the man, a young girl named Cècile (Chelsea Kurtz), thus ruining the girl for marriage and breaking the man’s heart. One problem, Valmont already has his own scheme brewing. He intends to win the heart of Madame de Tourvel (Liza Seneca), a highly principled and virtuous woman. Valmont’s reason for the courtship? He wants the satisfaction of ruining a good woman. Valmont eventually agrees to help The Marquise, if she will agree to have sex with him, which she does, with the condition that he must get Madame de Tourvel to fall in love with him first. And thus, a double seduction begins.
Then there’s Cècile, she has a crush of her own to worry about. It seems she’s in love with her music instructor The Chevalier Dancey (Paul Culos), who is forbidden to her because he is poor and she is rich, so they resort to passing love notes to each other. Valmont gets young Cècile to confide in him about these love letters and he then is able to use the information to seduce her.
Meanwhile Madame de Tourvel befriends Valmont, and he allows her to believe that she helps change his wicked ways, and is indeed inspiring him to being a more pious and honest man, and all because of his love for her. She falls for this, and he wins her heart. This then leads to Valmont claiming victory in his deal with The Marquise, but it seems she has other plans.
The convoluted narrative only makes the dramatic tension more palpable and the conclusion more rewarding. Hampton’s script, which is an adaptation of the 18th century novel by Chodoerlos de Laclos, is chocked full of wit, insights and gorgeous language that heightens the world, the tension, and the comedy. And for a play that is essentially about white privilege gone bad, it’s surprisingly topical and relevant. And seems to be aware of itself so as not to advocate but rather scoff at the ignoble sensibilities of people who have too much money and way too much time on their hands.
Director Robin Larsen makes some smart choices in the staging, in order to keep it fluid between scenes. The play has an episodic feel to it that could be stifling with blackouts, but Larson chooses small wordless vignettes in small corners of the set, off to the side, to show different moments, for example two characters in a carraige, or another character praying. It’s an interesting filler that keeps the rhythm of the production from ever missing a beat. The simplicity of the set, design by Yee Eun Nam, is smart and efficient. Allowing for the relatively intimate space to feel much larger and to accommodate several different locations without feeling cramped at all. The projections, on the other hand, are hit and miss. They feel distracting sometimes, and are somewhat overused and vague for transitions, though the date and locations, while not necessary, serve a useful purpose.
The cast is pretty great all around. Elyse Mirto’s Marquise is a poised and dangerous woman who never reveals what’s going on under the surface. Ms. Mirto holds that composure exceptionally well which affords her a wonderfully subtle final scene. Scott Ferrara is terrific as Valmont. His charismatic charm is the perfect asset for such a deplorable character. He is likeable despite himself, and though we are upset by his actions, we are morbidly drawn to him. The actor seems to know this and appears to be enjoying the scenery chewing role for all it’s worth.
This is a highly entertaining and noteworthy production of a complex and beautifully written play. It stays the course, slowly sinks its teeth in, and makes an impression. And at 2 hours and 45 minutes it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome nor drag its feet. It’s solid theatrical entertainment.
*Note: This is a Partner Cast Production. There are two separate casts that perform different nights
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
By Christopher Hampton
Directed By Robin Larsen
Antaeus Theatre Company
Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center
110 E. Broadway
Glendale CA 91205