The original and very influential novel by that title — written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos in 1782, seven years before the start of the French Revolution — was a collection of letters by sexually overheated aristocrats. It was playwright Christopher Hampton, who, in the mid-1980s, connected the dots and fops into a pungent piece of theatre. Lording majestically over all this hyperactive hotbed-hopping is a particularly glacial pair of cynics — La Marquise de Merteuil, a manipulator of Byzantine dimension, and Le Vicomte de Valmont, a ravenous rogue — former lovers of longstanding and perverse understanding, who entertain each other with tales of the innocents they ruin — until true and corrupting love enters the picture and befouls their cruel fun 'n' games.
Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, Tony contenders both, introduced this wicked duo to Broadway in 1987 in a Royal Shakespeare import directed by Howard Davies. Now, in Roundabout's stylish Broadway revival by director Rufus (Festen) Norris, we have Ben Daniels and Laura Linney lounging around on French Provincial, swapping intimate secrets of the innocents they have Biblically known. A supporting cast of a dozen more is grist for their mill. First-nighters celebrated the drama's arrival with a splashy little bash filling the third-floor ballroom (and adjacent dining rooms) of the Hilton New York Hotel.
Among them: Rosie Perez, Festen's Juliana Margulies ("I just had a baby so I'm working on that"), Sigourney Weaver and her director-husband Jim Simpson, Joan Rivers, lyricist David Zippel (a week away from putting his Wendy Wasserstein musical, Pamela's First Musical into rehearsal for his May 18 benefit premiere), Philip Bosco (Linney's senile father in "The Savages"), Leelee Sobieski, Frances De La Tour (will she be checking out how Christine Baranski handles her award-contending role in Boeing-Boeing?), set designer Tony Walton (currently building two cities for — yes! — A Tale of Two Cities, so he may have taken much note of this evening's décor), Katie Finneran (back from a month's filming of "Baby on Board" in Chicago), Cry-Baby's prize-worthy choreographer Rob Ashford, Speech and Debate's Jason Fuchs, Nine songwriter Maury Yeston, The Broadway League's Charlotte St. Martin, Tovah Feldshuh (who's doing her Golda's Balcony May 29-June 1 at Sarah Lawrence College before taking it to London's Shaw Theatre June 7-28), Jennifer Carpenter of Showtime's "Dexter," Tracy Ullman, and a covey of directors (Michael Greif, Kathleen Marshall, Mark Brokaw, Robert Longbottom and Moises Kaufman).
Television interviews were done at the theatre, but the stars soon twinkled —and trickled — in, and the entrances were warmly greeted with applause from the partiers.
"It's completely fulfilling," exclaimed Daniels of his belated Broadway debut (doubly overdue in light of the accolades he has accumulated back home in Britain ). "New York is my favorite city in the world, and for someone to pay for me to come and do a play here — especially this extraordinary piece — is thrilling. I'm quite beside myself."
|photos by Aubrey Reuben|
Make no mistake about it, he's reveling in the Valmont role. "There are so many things I like about this character," he said. "He's someone who has never really been alive before when we see him at the beginning of the play. His skill is to make other people feel alive. He's a little bit like an energy vampire. And then, for the first time in his life, he falls in love, and his heart opens, and then it ultimately destroys him. So the arc of the character is extraordinary. It's beautiful to play." His leading lady is his equal in her love for her role. "The thing that I like about the marquise is that she's in that play," Linney said on opening night. "More than the character, I love the play."
Linney also has the extra edge of having to act in the ravishing 18th- century gowns that British costume designer Katrina Lindsay has lushly provided the production — one gold number, in particular, is an eye-scorcher. "Aren't they beautiful? Of course, it takes a while to get used to them. You need a little time with them. It took us women a while to get comfortable with them. After that, though, it was fine."
Siân Phillips brings an elevating elegance to the proceedings as the world-weary matriarch, Madame de Rosemonde, who, for the most part, is oblivious to the naughtiness abounding around her. "She's the nicest person in the play, for one thing," contended Phillips, who has a point of relative comparison: "I usually play horrible people. Just for once I get to be quite good — except I think I get my head chopped off. Well, they all get chopped. The guillotine is waiting."
Mamie Gummer and Benjamin Walker number among the young sexual victims preyed upon by Valmont and the marquise. "She's a riot," said Gummer of her Cécile. "She's a riot. She's so little, and lovely, and doesn't know the half of it. She's completely out of her depth and just falls victim to things that are out of her league."
Walker, who made his Broadway debut as the forgotten man in Inherit the Wind (the schoolteacher on trial for teaching evolution), is still being knocked around by more forceful characters. "I like that Danceny becomes a man during the course of the play — he kinda comes of age — and that's an exciting journey." One of the things that pushes him over the end into manhood is a protracted sword fight at the end. "Rick Sordelet choreographed the fight. He's my favorite of those I've worked with. It's quite a fight."
The most radiant of the young sexual sacrifices — La Présidente de Tourvel, who introduces love into Valmont's line of conquests — marks Jessica Collins' first performance on Broadway. "It's everything I thought it would be," she said gleefully. "I feel my character is intelligent, and I appreciate that about her." Then, there are those elaborate 18th-century get-ups: "I feel like a princess."
Sharing those exact sentiments about the costumes was Kristine Nielsen, who plays the oblivious mom of one of the deflowered ingénues a little like Mary Boland in 18th-century France. "Loved those costumes! I wish I went back in that time. Maybe I could be a famous French actress or something. Wouldn't that be nice?" This is only Norris' second directorial effort for Broadway, but, with it following the family fallout of Festen, a case could be made that his specialty is plays about adults behaving badly. "Well, it's not quite a family drama, but it is a lively group of people, and there's a lot of stuff going under the carpet which comes out and gets them in the end."
He said he was drawn to Hampton's script because "it's a brilliant play. It's beautiful, beautiful language. It's like Shakespeare and Chekhov and those plays that have a huge amount of depth and beautiful language. I don't usually do work which has so much text, so it's a departure for me — and a very exciting opportunity."
Scott Pask imaginatively sets the stage for a soon-to-end era with huge swags of drapes that droop over the proceedings, dropping in gradation in sharp dramatic moments until they finally collapse in a heap around the survivors playing cards and waiting for the inevitable. "That was my idea," Pask confessed. "I'd seen some research of an old set with tons of drapes over it, and I sorta felt that image would be appropriate — decadent, baroque — and then, when it fell apart in a state of decay, it would be kind of amazing. Rufus and I talked through it all. He's a brilliant, brilliant director."
In addition to emotive drapes, Pask brings to the stage windows and see-through glass and assorted mirror tricks. "I just wanted layers and facets, and it's about the servant and the served, but it's also about reflection, perception, people putting on the face of how they want to be perceived, but then also vulnerability and all that. So I just wanted a space that would reflect that. And also, since the French Revolution is very soon to follow, the servants are watching, and they're paying attention to everything that is going on, and they're going to be lowering the boom very quickly."
One of those watching and waiting is one of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women. Delphi Harrington stands tall in the background as a house servant (occasionally giving good chair, occasionally taking good chair), ridiculously overqualified for the assignment — except that she stands by expertly for Phillips, who hasn't a thing to worry about. "I haven't an Eve Harrington bone in my body," insisted the woman whose name is still Harrington.