The deliciously low art of debauchery in high places is the lesson before the class today. For visual aid, check out Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which was installed a third time on Broadway October 30—this time in a buddy-booth known simply as The Booth.
Onstage, the remnants of wallpaper, scraped and chipped and peeling, appear to be done in Late 18th Century Depravity. These walls can talk, but mostly they just listen to the kiss-and-tell-tell-tell of Le Viconte de Valmont (Liev Schreiber) and La Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer), recounting their sexercises with the young and innocent.
“Love is something you use—it’s not something you fall into like quicksand, don’t you remember?” she says seductively, reminding him of Roue Rule #1 in their decadent escapades. Had he kept True Love at bay, things might have ended much sunnier.
These two old flames, flickering and giving off heat like the candle chandeliers hanging over their heads, are making hay—and all manner of amour—while the sun shines on the aristocracy still (some seven years before the French Revolution).
At the elegant after-party held appropriately among the pillared grandeur of Gotham Hall, playwright Christopher Hampton confessed that he was an Oxford schoolboy when he first encountered this classic cautionary tale. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel was a class assignment that made an indelible impression on him.
“It was hard to adapt into a play at first,” he said, “mostly because I was trying to use the arcane language. When I freed myself of that, the writing became much easier.”
He has never gone back to tinker with it because he believes he got it right the first time. It won him a Tony nomination when Lindsay Duncan, the late Alan Rickman and their late director, Howard Davies, memorably introduced it to Broadway almost 30 years ago. An Oscar for 1988’s Best Screenplay seconded the motion (retitled for the movie masses as Dangerous Liaisons, it starred Glenn Close and John Malkovich, who chewed every morsel of his succulent, sophisticated dialogue.)
Schreiber, arguably second only to Christopher Plummer in the voiceover field, has quite a feast himself, playing the high-born Valmont, lifting the words to a lofty aristocratic league. Once bit by the love bug, he starts knocking back the cognac and port. At the party’s bar, he tried to pretend to some reporters it was the real thing, but, on closer interrogation, he admitted it was grapejuice and a fizzy theatrical mix.
Le Viconte de Valmont is no Ray Donovan, his current television role, and that vivid contrast was one of the reasons he took the role on. Also: “I liked this character a lot. He’s a wicked guy, but he has a definite philosophy, and it’s a sound one. He believes only what he can feel, and that’s what moves him in this very interesting trajectory through this play.”
McTeer could be accused of making contrasts as well. In the four roles she has brought to the New York stage, the characters seem to be exact opposites (the chauvinistic Petruchio she played in the park this summer vs. her Tony-winning Nora in A Doll’s House; her noble and martyred Mary Stuart vs. her current Olivier-nominated performance, which she first gave at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2015). The actor agrees, laughing when this is pointed out to her. “I love doing that.”
Save for the chopping block, her sensual, self-indulgent Marquise is far from Mary Stuart’s martyrdom. “Oh, I love the fact that she’s so intelligent, that she’s so damaged, that she’s so witty. She gets to wear fabulous clothes. She knows all about sexual intrigue and power and how power can go wrong. Ultimately, she knows about loving someone, and it all goes horribly wrong, and that’s a universal issue.”
McTeer and her director, Josie Rourke, who is also artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, are the lone London transplants in this Broadway re-production. The actor enjoyed working with “the colonists” a lot. “The entire cast has been just delightful and brilliant, so the whole experience has been a joy—a real joy.”
Director Rourke reprised the sentiment. “It’s a terrific company—I’m very fortunate,” she admits. And why did she pick this particular play for her first Broadway effort?
“I’ve always loved this play. I think it’s absolutely an amazing play—and the novel is incredible. I’ve loved it since I was a kid—although that, somehow, sounds wrong.”
A woman director calling the shots for this battle of the sexes, she feels, doesn’t tip the scales unfairly. “I don’t think it’s a feminist statement. I’m a feminist, but, if I wanted to make a feminist statement, I’d probably do it on a different platform.”
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Three beautiful Broadway newbies number among Schreiber’s conquests. Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, from TV’s Borgen and filmdom’s Pitch Perfect 2, plays the strongest and longest hold-out with such towering and unexpected dignity that one wonders what direction she was given to get there. “Josie and I talked my character’s softness and the gentle strength that she carries rather than embodies,” the actor replied.
“Of course, she’s a woman of faith. While, for a modern-day audience, that quality can sometimes evoke laughter or you find it a bit ridiculous, it’s something that’s very, very true about her. Guileless, probably, is one of the best words to describe her. In this world where everybody is deceiving and betraying, that may make her seem a tad naïve, but it’s really that she just doesn’t even think in terms of deceit.”
The youngest of the Schreiber-susceptibles is Elena Kampouris, who plays Cecile. “I’ve never done a play before,” she is quick to relay, “only films and television. When I was in school, I did maybe one play, and, in it, I was—literally—a shrub.”
Clearly a shrub no more, she is an actor with an arc. “I love my character’s transformation. She’s got a big journey, so I’m having fun kinda exploring and finding new ways to bring it to life. Every night, since we do the same thing over and over, we get to evolve it and we find different things each time, so it’s a lot of fun, but it’s intimidating working with these incredible actors. I feel so lucky to be sharing the stage with them, and they are mentoring in ways that make me feel so grateful.”
Katrina Cunningham struts out the courtesan role with more assurance than you’d expect from somebody new to Broadway. “My last show, Paramour with Cirque du Soleil, was my Broadway debut. I opened the second act with a pretty song that I helped to write, and I covered the lead. This is the first play I’ve ever been in.”
She adjusts well, though. “I love playing Emilie because she has such a sense of control over her sexuality. I just love the little feminist pull I can take for her.
All of her scenes are with Schreiber and on the sexy side. “Liev’s wonderful. We check in every day and sing a little song that I play on the harpsichord. He’s very generous and very gentlemanly. You gotta be gentlemanly if you’re doing intimate stuff on stage. I suppose I should say I’m lucky, but I think that is probably the standard, and I’m glad that he observes the standard of being respectful to women.”
About the only female onstage without a sexual agenda is the grande dame Mary Beth Peil plays with a Billie Burke flourish. She even gets to sing a few notes from Michael Bruce’s original incidental score for the production. That—and the fact she still lingers in memory as Mrs. Anna to Yul Brynner’s King of Siam—make her seem like she’s the only one of the cast who’s comfortable in an 18th-century hoopskirt.
And as French aristocracy go, the “Marquis de Lafayette” hip-hopped by the press room to see what’s happenin’: it was Hamilton’s newly Tony-ed Daveed Diggs.
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