'Dangerous Liaisons' tallies the cost of greed and lust Story from 18th century is contemporary warning

October 08, 1998|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Eighteenth-century writer Choderlos de Laclos, whose novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" chronicled the rampant amorality of the French aristocracy just before its cataclysmic demise in the revolution of 1789, once expressed the hope that his incendiary work would be talked about long after his death.

He's gotten his wish.

Hollywood employed Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich to turn "Dangerous Liaisons" into a riveting film in 1988. It has become an opera, and in 1985 British playwright Christopher Hampton adapted it for the stage at the behest of London's Royal Shakespeare Company.

Hampton's handiwork is on display at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre, where Rep Stage, Columbia's premier theatrical ensemble, has joined with the Source Theatre of Washington to present "Dangerous Liaisons" through Oct. 18.

The production is directed by Joe Banno, Source Theatre's artistic director, whose talents were honored with a Helen Hayes Award in May.

From this production, it's not hard to see why Banno's work would cause his peers to take notice. He has taken a rather talky play and brought it to life with an energy that positively drips with the twin venoms of avarice and sexual excess.

No ruffled gowns, powdered wigs or waistcoats for this crew of misfit libertines. Banno has taken Laclos' tale of former lovers who plot the humiliation of others for their own personal amusement and dressed it up in a setting that's tres 1990s.

The Vicomte de Valmont (Rick Foucheux), who ruins the lurid plan by falling in love with the young newlywed he's been assigned to bed, reeks of Armani, while his toxic Marquise

(Valerie Costantini), clad in an oh-so-stylish black dress with eyeglasses to match, comes off looking like an oversexed incarnation of Stephen Sondheim's "Ladies Who Lunch."

Much of their plotting is done amid the dark gray tones of a salon that resembles a chic Nordstrom's tea room. The theater's nifty revolving stage reveals other minimalist backgrounds that are very much of our own time.

The result is a setting Laclos wouldn't recognize, but one that is all too familiar to us. And that's precisely the director's point. Lust -- whether for power, for intrigue or for its own sake -- is a perennial of human nature irrespective of time and place. If allowed to run rampant, unchecked by conscience, it can twist and ruin people of any historical era.

But what truly fascinated me about this production is how "thoroughly '90s" the characters became as they articulated novelist Laclos' universal message. When Foucheux's Vicomte intones his malevolent mantra ("It's beyond my control, it's beyond my control"), he sounds more like a sex addict on his way to Oprah's couch than a heartless libertine washing his hands of the nasty business of love.

This is no indictment of Foucheux's performance, which I admired immensely. But it does remind us anew of one of the theater's fundamental ironies: The more we put on make-believe costumes to speak the words of others, the more we reveal of our own reality.

Foucheux's wonderfully sleazy performance is complemented by a most talented ensemble. Costantini is the very soul of manipulative menace as the lethal Marquise de Merteuil. She evokes some well-deserved laughter when she passes herself off as "just one of the girls" in her attempts to "help" her advisee, Cecile, after the young girl is so calculatingly deflowered by the Vicomte. But she earns not one shred of pity when she gets her comeuppance at the end of the play.

Other standouts include Jennifer Sally Albright, who is very good as Cecile, and Edward Baird Wilford who excels as Chevalier Danceny, Cecile's suitor who becomes the Marquise's "boy toy" as the plot thickens.

Also first-class is David Bryan Jackson as the Vicomte's smarmy, shifty valet.

Most heart-rending is Sarah Ripard as Madame Tourvel, the young bride whose doomed search for love is almost too painful to watch. Ripard's exotic beauty and graceful stage presence make for many moments of ineffable sadness.

It is early in the run, and patches of dialogue seemed in need of more repetition at Friday's performance. The poolside scene near the end of Act I sounded especially disjointed.

The play could have embraced its origins by using, say, some ominous-sounding 18th-century French harpsichord music for scene changes, but it used loud bursts of rock 'n' roll instead. It sounded as abysmally stupid as it does on the soaps.

Whatever its minor flaws, though, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" makes for a sad, sexy, provocative night at the theater and should not be missed.

Performances will be given Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 18. For tickets: 410-772-4900.

Pub Date: 10/08/98

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