Quartett, Heiner Müller's sexually charged "dramatic reverie" based on the novel, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," gets a fresh staging directed by Gabriella Maione at The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theatre, June 27-July 1.
Tony Award nominee Daniel McDonald (Steel Pier) is featured as Valmont in the four-actor play about sex, power, control and games. Müller, who died in 1995, insisted his 1980 play was a comedy (it "has a bit of Charley's Aunt in it," he once said). And despite its overt and disturbing political content about mass culture and class, it has proved his most popular piece.
The cast also includes Chandler Vinton as Marquise de Meurteil, who, like Valmont, makes sport of sexual conquests. They both "acknowledge the world as a theatre in which they create roles of their own invention," according to production notes.
Omar Metwally and Suzanne Packer are also featured in the work, which has its roots in the novel by Choderlos de Laclos (the play Les Liaisons Dangereuses and films "Valmont" and "Dangerous Liaisons" were also inspired by the book).
McDonald—who made his mark in the Kander and Ebb Depression-era musical Steel Pier, playing a sort of angel, and went on to play breezy socialite C.K. Dexter-Haven in the stage version of the movie musical High Society—would seem an odd choice of actor for Italian-born, France-based Maione and her take on a playwright known equally for his Marxist beliefs and esoteric style. Müller's (1929-1995) other works include The Father, Hamletmachine, The Mission and Despoiled Shore Medeamaterial Landscape With Argonauts, and, while widely known in Europe, are rarely produced in the U.S. McDonald said he was referred to the director through The Actors Studio, where he has done some work. "I hadn't known Heiner Müller at all," he told Playbill On-Line. He found the text intimidating on first read. "The script is frightening. It's frightening on so many levels. It's frightening to think of to do, it's frightening to read,"—the 17-page script typically runs a few hours because the pages are so densely packed with type and images—"it's frightening to go into the spaces he asks you to go into. It's very thick, embroidered material.
"It was completely intimidated," he continued. "And that must be why I'm feeling so strong about this project. I should confront it. When you're that afraid of something, your fear is most detrimental to your state, not the actual event."
McDonald had cause for trepidation. Müller's Valmont is a sight more chilly and brutal that those seen by theatregoers in Les Liaisons Dangereuses and filmgoers in "Dangerous Liasons" and "Valmont." According to Müller scholar Jonathan Kalb, writing in the New York Times, Quartett is "a hyper-concentrated grenade of a piece for two actors that consists mostly of long, salaciously self-indulgent monologues by.... depraved aristocrats," and is "drolly erotic, devoid of poetic justice and (like the novel) so thoroughly drained of sentimentality that its very absence of warmth and tenderness becomes a source of titillation."
"Müller is so different," explained McDonald. "This is not your standard Laclos version. He uses the names, he uses the character, and some of the situations, but the games that are played are spelled out in different terms.
"I think Müller was really haunted by the Holocaust and what happened with his family. He's talking about human cruelty on a different level. There's something of the Marquis de Sade of the Eighteenth Century that permeated certain elements of society out of which Laclos came. That same schadenfreude, that German essential element of enjoying wings being pulled off flies, that's kind of what he's after here. It's a liberating point of view, but it also gives one nightmares. It's a very dark place to be. It's like working on a character who's a neo-Nazi or a serial killer, but different, because it's covered with all kinds of elegance and grace. But there's a really dark current. The characters are painful to bring to life."
The international design team includes Jean Paul Chambas (set), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Robert Wierzel (lighting). Michael Galasso, a collaborator with Robert Wilson for more than 20 years, has composed music for the staging and serves as sound designer.
Quartett is presented in a translation by Marc von Henning and is produced by RPN Globe Productions. An international tour is expected. Tickets are $50. The BAM Harvey Theatre is at 651 Fulton Street in Brooklyn. For information, call (212) 307-4100 for BAM at (718) 636 4100.
—By Robert Simonson
and Kenneth Jones