Reviews: Les Liaisons Dangereuses and The Harvest

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From Les Liaisons Dangereuses, at the Booth Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus

Classically trained actors are naturally drawn to roles that show off their verbal fluency, but few contemporary plays give them the chance. No wonder Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, with its baroque dialogue bordering on camp, has proved so popular with upmarket stars. Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman headed the 1985 premiere; Glenn Close and John Malkovich the 1988 film; now Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber lead the gorgeous but tiresome revival that opens tonight on Broadway. The script is full of lines like “I wonder if I’m beginning to guess what it is you’re intending to propose,” which despite the heavy ironing required to make them lie flat reward the effort with only a vestigial feeling that something humorous has happened. Indeed, Les Liaisons is a trap: In portraying the moral decadence of the Ancien Régime, it aligns itself with that decadence. For Hampton and his collaborators, it’s a case of let them eat cake and have it too.

Usually it takes a while — maybe the whole length of a performance — to sense this problem, because the plot, lifted very faithfully from the 1782 epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, is so captivatingly perverse. The Marquise de Merteuil, a widow, and the Vicomte de Valmont, an unmarried libertine, are former lovers who find pleasure (and fame) in urging one another to ruin innocents, betray sophisticates, and test the limits of their own debauchery. Merteuil’s challenge to Valmont combines the first two: She wants him to devirginize Cécile Volanges, a 15-year-old fresh out of the convent, as revenge on a former lover who now hopes to marry the girl. In return, Merteuil will consent to sleep with Valmont again. Valmont’s challenge, to himself, is more complicated but lacks even that degree of justification. He aims to seduce Madame de Tourvel, a beautiful woman “famous for strict morals, religious fervor, and the happiness of her marriage” merely so he can experience “the excitement of watching her betray everything that’s most important to her.” As if it were not already clear that the maintenance of power in a society teetering on revolution is the engine behind his actions, he sells his scheme to a doubtful Merteuil by saying: “What could possibly be more prestigious?”

The two plans intersect and then tangle in various tortured ways that, in the novel, are revealed by implication, as the variously deceitful and credulous letters among the principals are presented without context. The reader has to sort it out. No accident, then, that the best scene in the play is itself epistolary: Valmont writes a letter using a semi-naked woman as his desk. But for the most part Hampton was unable to re-create the novel’s multi-angle documentary perspective onstage. Instead he gives us a series of salon and bedroom scenes that cherry-pick the high points of the action while supplying recapitulations of what has happened since the last scene and GPS announcements of where the plot goes next. This flattens out the action to paper-thinness, a problem Hampton tries to disguise with the highly decorative language. But one problem leads to another; that decorative language itself flattens the action, especially when Hampton attempts philosophy. Speaking instead of writing literary prose to one another, Valmont and Merteuil do not seem to have much at stake except their intellectual bone fides. In those circumstances, wit is tiresome, and thus not wit.

Director Josie Rourke’s production, a hit at the Donmar Warehouse in London, mostly seems to exacerbate this. It looks and mostly moves like a memory play. Tom Scutt’s unit set, in full view as you enter the Booth, suggests a decommissioned 18th-century art museum, with elaborately flaked plaster, paintings swathed in plastic, stacks of gilded rococo frames, and a bank of fluorescent lights above. As the play begins, and the fluorescents are replaced by chandeliers with live candles, the effect is like the gentle waking of a tableau vivant, of history woozily stepping out of its slumber. It’s lovely, but creates tonal uncertainty, as if this were going to be a fairy tale or La Sylphide instead of a high-wire act of sexual Realpolitik. It seemed to me that, as a result, most of the laughs in the first half-hour were dead on arrival. That’s exactly backward; Les Liaisons Dangereuses works better as a rollicking comedy that then pulls you up short, slowly implicating you in its cruelty. It doesn’t help that Rourke directs the ensemble, dressed in Scutt’s gorgeous period costumes, to make the minimal set changes between scenes while prancing and singing as if at a Fragonard garden party.

It’s a triumph of the visual over the dramatic, or would be but for the actors fighting back. McTeer, the only holdover from the Donmar production, is commanding and captivating as Merteuil — no surprise if you saw her as Mary Stuart or, for that matter, Petrucchio in the recent all-female Taming of the Shrew. She is confident enough even to play with the role as if it were underwritten; at least at first, she allows the imperious manipulator a vivid armamentarium of coloratura decorations, feigning coquetry or silliness, as the moment allows. You miss that variety when the story darkens, and so does she, but by then Schreiber is coming into his own. Schreiber is odd casting for the “strikingly elegant” Valmont; he’s sexy in a blocky way, in no way effete. His dialect of English tends toward the galoot. But especially as the story starts to focus on Valmont’s crisis of bad faith — when his time spent trying to seduce Madame de Tourvel initiates some faint stirrings of human decency — he becomes the more complicated figure through sheer force of will, even as the play basically falls out from under him. From under her, too. In a fizzle of a finale, the denouement of Merteuil’s story is barely sketched; gone entirely is the judgment the novel implicitly makes by giving her smallpox. 

Though Hampton’s script calls for a faint reminder of the guillotine at the end, I didn’t notice one, or what it would imply, in Rourke’s production. That’s certainly a choice you can make with this material: to underplay the blade looming over all the characters’ necks, since they would not, seven years before it began, have been aware of the revolution. But I think part of the reason this revival makes for a sour evening — despite McTeer and Schreiber and some other fine actors — is that it doesn’t engage its context head-on; it’s like a race car running on half an engine. If people remember the movie as gripping, it’s not really because of the deluxe casting or because Merteuil’s comeuppance is much better handled in Hampton’s screenplay. It’s because you always sense in the movie, which is quite a bit shorter than this production, the presence of the cliff the story is racing toward. Without that, the liaisons are less dangereuses than tediouses.

* * * 

The first nine pages of the script for Samuel D. Hunter’s new play The Harvest consist of dialogue like this: “Eli suk vora ray tee mo, ray tee sura dasha fing nah! Spirit Lord, fora tash tama Jesus fora tash.” These nonsense syllables are delivered — moaned, wailed, barked, and screamed — by four super-nice, super-white Idaho kids in their early 20s. They are praying in tongues, and they have a lot to pray about; soon after this opening scene they will be leaving on a four-month missionary trip to the Middle East, where they hope to spread the gospel and convert Muslims. Led by chirpy Ada, a slightly older 20-something who has been on such missions before, they are spending their last three days in Idaho Falls meeting regularly in the grotty basement of their evangelical church, “an island of truth in an ocean of Mormon apostasy.” There among the boxes of tracts and the unfinished drywall (the spot-on set is by Dane Laffrey) they practice their terrible Arabic, worry about potential violence, and rehearse their good-news scripts. (“Hi. My name is Marcus. I came here from America so I can tell people all about Jesus. Do you know anything about Jesus?”) They are also trying to work out, each in his or her own way, what the meaning of their mission could be in a world that equates faith with control. 

Hunter doesn’t let you jump to conclusions. Though the opening is terrifying, orgasmic, and even (if seen unsympathetically) psychotic, there is no condescension. In any case, Hunter is constitutionally incapable of unsympathy; his point of view is drenched in compassion. Sometimes in his plays (which include The Whale, A Bright New Boise, and Pocatello) his love for what are evidently familiar figures from his own Idaho youth has a dulling effect, like the resins that brown the pigments of medieval paintings. But in The Harvest he has engaged, through this love, his anger, to thrillingly contrapuntal effect. (Music, from Wagner to Messiaen to Ashlee Simpson, is a fascinating sub-theme here.) As we learn about each of the four new missionaries we cannot but honor the conflicts they are trying to resolve through action. Marcus is dim and eupeptic but trying to step up to the responsibility of protecting his wife, Denise, who is two months pregnant. Denise, meanwhile, is trying to assert her autonomy within a constricted view of marriage. Tom, anxious and artistic, hopes that through God he can reconcile himself to the loss of his mother some years earlier, and to the upcoming loss of his best friend, Josh. For it turns out that Josh has announced his intention of staying in the Middle East permanently after the current mission ends.

That Tom and Josh appear to have a romantic if not yet a sexual connection adds impetus and topicality — and great emotion — to their drama, but it is one of the strengths of Hunter’s writing here that their possible gayness is a secondary or tertiary issue. He is more directly interested in how these young people become aware of, and then deal with, the sad truth about faith that he forces them (and us) to see after first stripping away our anti-faith prejudices. Ada, the group leader, and Chuck, the church’s pastor, try to put a benevolent expression on the face of the bad news that religion is like a drunk parent: the only available solace for the cruelty it inflicts. But in the end their warmth is just a cover for a crueler, narrower faith “in the one true message” that is “the superiority of Christian culture.” This is the real news that the church delivers, to believers and nonbelievers alike. And though Ada and Chuck may be small Idaho potatoes, Hunter exposes them as big enough charlatans just the same. 

I caught up late with The Harvest, after the LCT3 production opened to some very hostile reviews. It’s hard to understand why. There is a bit of awkwardly integrated exposition here and there, and the ending, though very powerful, requires perhaps too many turns of the screw for its own good. But it is passionate and funny and daring and, under Davis McCallum’s perfectly judged direction, marvelously theatrical in a way that most serious plays about faith are not. (Leah Gelpe’s terrific sound design plays a major role in that.) The cast, led by Gideon Glick and Peter Mark Kendall as Tom and Josh, is giving as good an ensemble performance as I’ve seen in New York this year. (The others deserve to be named: Madeline Martin as Denise, Christopher Sears as Marcus, Zoë Winters as Ada, Scott Jaeck as Chuck, and Leah Karpel as Josh’s estranged sister, Michaela.) Collectively they make you nostalgic for the time in your life when you first asked, as Josh does, “Don’t you ever want to believe in something bigger than yourself?” And ache for those like Josh who in trying to answer it honestly are likely to be crushed.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is at the Booth Theatre through January 22. 
The Harvest is at the Claire Tow Theater through November 20.