Sex and power.
See how catchy those two little words can be?
It's hard to go wrong with themes like that. But they can be tricky to enact on stage -- particularly on the community theater level.
These are a few of the many challenges posed by Christopher Hampton's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." And they are all being skillfully met in the current production at Fells Point Corner Theatre, directed by Barry Feinstein.
Tone presents another thorny problem in this play. Based on an 18th century French epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos, "Les Liaisons" may be about sex, but not the steamy variety; this is a cold, calculating statement on the cruel game of manipulating emotions.
In the licentious period before the French Revolution, two bored nobles -- the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil -- conduct a series of competitive affairs, comparing notes, tactics and conquests like generals discussing the finer points of military combat.
To get back at a lover who jilted her, the Marquise persuades Valmont to deflower the lover's teen-age fiancee. At the same time, Valmont sets his sights on seducing Mme. de Tourvel -- a happily married woman renowned for her piety and virtue.
A series of seduction scenes is difficult enough to enact without eliciting titters. But in addition, the role of Valmont requires the actor to be on stage for most of the play, and, at frequent intervals, to rapidly switch attitudes from amorousness to cynical wisecracking.
Tim Munn not only carries all of this off, but he also has mastered the role's toughest demand -- convincing the audience that Valmont has fallen in love with Mme. de Tourvel despite his vehement denials, especially to himself.
Mr. Munn is aided in this task by the equally accomplished performance of Amy Wieczorek as Mme. de Tourvel, a woman who is as attracted to Valmont as she is afraid of him.
Several of the other roles are less subtly handled. Amy Jo Shapiro's Marquise seems a bit too loud and coarse for her blue blood, and Anthony Rothkin is flat as a bookish, naive swain. However, Sabine Herts and Elizabeth Kosztolnyik give suitable portrayals of Valmont's aunt and the young virgin, respectively.
The ending of "Les Liaisons" is intended to be chilling and ironic, with personal tragedy presaging political upheaval. But this impressive production emphasizes another tragic layer as well -- the dire consequences of suppressing the human heart.
'Les Liaisons Dangereuses'
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.; May 26 and June 2 at 7 p.m.; matinees May 26 and June 9 at 2 p.m. Through June 9.
Where: Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.