NEW YORK (AP) - Late in the new Broadway revival of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” Janet McTeer encounters a real, flickering candle. She’s playing a devious aristocrat who is angry and happy to prove her mettle. So the actress quietly puts her palm over the flame, lets it hang there for a moment - and then snuffs it out with a slap.
It’s a lovely bit of stagecraft, in keeping with a brilliant production that comes to the Booth Theatre after starting at the Donmar Warehouse in London. The formidable McTeer has made the leap and so has the taut direction by the Donmar’s Artistic Director Josie Rourke. Liev Schreiber makes a welcome, languid return to Broadway with more than enough chemistry with his co-star.
Christopher Hampton’s dark comedy of sexual intrigue in pre-Revolutionary France can be overly fanciful and drag during its three-hour run time, but this revival simply crackles as a witty comedy descends into horrific satire. Baroquely haunting music by Michael Bruce is used beautifully between the 18 scenes.
“Les Liaisons Dangereuses ” examines in exhaustive detail two of the nobility’s vilest specimens - the Marquise de Merteuil (McTeer) and the Vicomte de Valmont (Schreiber), who happen to be former lovers with unfinished business. It focuses on their intrigues and machinations, a mutual admiration society that plots the downfall of two pure, if naive, young women that has more than a rapey whiff in 2016.
Merteuil and Valmont are loathsome sociopaths with good breeding who care only about social standing, no matter who they are standing on. “I thought betrayal was your favorite word,” he asks her. She responds: “No, no, cruelty, I always think that has a nobler ring to it.” They set in motion their own destruction.
McTeer is luminous and sharp, playing her marquise coolly indeed but with an inner fire burning. “I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own,” she tells Valmont. McTeer reveals her vulnerability only late, and to devastating effect.
Schreiber, for his part, isn’t reptilian or overly lascivious. His Valmont is idly amused and relaxed - even drunkenly indifferent - until he pounces like a shark, a true seduction machine. Schreiber seems so relaxed that during one preview scene in which he lounges on a coach, he expertly tossed two playing cards back-to-back into an urn on the floor.
Hampton’s take-no-prisoners battle of the sexes has great lines throughout - “It’s always the best swimmers who drown” and “Only flirt with those you intend to refuse,” are two to remember - and the cast is well rounded out by a skittish Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Madame de Tourvel, a coltish Elena Kampouris and a polished Mary Beth Peil as Madame de Rosemonde.
There is one more star here and that’s Tom Scutt, who did the clever set and luscious costume. The play takes place in a ruined old parlor, with decaying walls and large classical paintings on the floor, unmoored.
It opens with plastic sheeting over furniture and modern fluorescent lights. Both recede as chandeliers and servants appear, perhaps signaling a trip back in time to tell the story of why the French aristocracy’s candle was snuffed out.
Mark Kennedy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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