Sometimes theater is a simple thing, its alchemy a matter of small choices—an inflection, maybe, or a carefully chosen gesture, or a prop insisting that a line can’t mean what we think it ought to. As the lights come up on the Actors Theatre of Washington’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it’s a headband, of all things, that alerts audiences to how thoroughly the evening will be devoted to the sleights and feints that set theater apart from the other arts: Jeffrey Johnson dons the ornament and the character of the Marquise de Merteuil in the same glacial, graceful motion, and suddenly the gesture and the character and the moment have everything to do with calculation, with rigid control.
Fear not: ATW’s “all-male yet not necessarily gay” reading stops short of drag and well short of the camp that would come with it. Johnson’s playing a woman, and a formidable one, a sleek predator engaged in an elegantly malevolent game: In a France just a few years shy of revolution, the marquise and her playboy counterpart (Christopher Henley’s Vicomte de Valmont) make brutal mischief behind the elaborate masks of 18th-century convention, engineering the ruin of a sanctimonious friend’s convent-educated daughter and the embarrassment of her hidebound husband-to-be, their motivation being little more than aristocratic boredom and a blinders-off distaste for the sexual hypocrisies of their sanctimonious society. A side project—Valmont’s conquest of the famously virtuous Madame de Tourvel—begins as a challenge and ends in a showdown between the two conspirators, each determined to dominate the other, each incapable of admitting that passion might be disrupting their calculations. It’s deliciously wicked stuff, as fans of the Glenn Close/John Malkovich film version will testify: a cruelly witty, frankly caustic, startlingly contemporary take on the lies we tell ourselves about men and women, love and sex, propriety and power.
ATW’s production skips the period fripperies and focuses in on questions of psychology and gender. Designer Greg Stevens separates the femmes from the boys with scattered accessories (a fan, a pair of earrings) and subtle variations on the production’s basic black-and-white costume scheme—a fuller, slightly frillier shirt and leather pants for the worldly Merteuil, a gossamer wrap for Brent Stansell’s blushing Cécile, and so on. And the casting pays off, as you might guess, in interesting ways: Peter Klaus’ doe-eyed Tourvel stands taller and broader-shouldered than Henley’s Valmont, so the character’s palpable vulnerability has an internality it mightn’t with a slip of an actress playing the part. So, too, for Cécile’s carnality, awakened under Valmont’s ministrations and Merteuil’s sexually political counsel; the cross-casting underscores that there’s something universal in her struggle to reconcile what she’s been told about sex with what her body’s telling her. Ditto for the kindliness of Ray Hagen’s ancient Rosemonde, whose compassion for both victims and victimizers comes through as neither a masculine nor a feminine quality, but simply a profoundly human one, and for the priggish posturing of John C. Bailey’s Madame Volanges.
Daniel Eichner plays the callow young Chevalier Danceny for maximum amusement, and Johnson’s Merteuil is a small masterpiece of expressive control, both physically and emotionally—and both are crucial if Hampton’s fabulously mannered exercise, with its fencing-match dialogue and its insistence that we invest ourselves in its contests, is to seem like anything more than a callous game. The surprise is Henley’s Valmont: The tense, jittery physicality that the actor usually manages to individualize, to tie specifically and interestingly to his often oddball characters, seems thoroughly foreign to Hampton’s fatally overconfident seducer. Henley’s Valmont never seems comfortable in his skin—so there’s nowhere for him to go in Act 2, when his dangerous game forces him to confront the possibility that he’s not the reckless rake he imagined.
Director Lee Mikeska Gardner lets the pace flag at one or two crucial points—most fatally just as a particularly merciless moment of reckoning approaches to destroy two of the central threesome and threaten the other’s iron control—and occasionally she and her cast allow the combatants’ ruthlessly governed passions to break through to the surface, where they’re considerably less bracing. And at the press performance, the actors still seemed to be adjusting for a last-minute change of venue after an occupancy-permit snag drove them from their planned home on V Street to the Source Theatre. (Yes, it’s still there, never mind the months of disuse.)
Still, these Liaisons prove pretty stimulating, if only for the line-betweening possibilities its gender-blindness presents. No, for more than that—for the intelligent theatricality that is its baseline, for the trust that on a stage, in the dark, sleights and feints can add up to something movingly substantial.CP