Les Liaisons Timides

Laura Linney, brilliant in nearly everything I’ve seen her do, is the entire reason I bought tickets to see the Roundabout Theater’s production of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangeureses. So it’s a good thing that Ben Daniels and not she was replaced by the understudy in the performance I saw.

    Laura Linney and Ben Daniels
Laura Linney and Ben Daniels don’t open their mouths without first calculating what damage they can do in this revival production of Les Liaisons Dangeureuses.

She was calculating and precise, demanding, even cold at times, but not strong-sounding enough. Her voice faltered in a few lines, which in other characters and at other times she has used to great effect, but in Merteuil, it just seemed weak.

The Valmont understudy did fine, but only fine. He seemed more of a smirking, cocky American boy than the “conspicuously charming” and ultimately dangerous European I am sure Tony-nominated Ben Daniels carried off a bit better. For Valmont to be effective, he needs to seduce not only his female prey but also the audience. He needn’t have been better-looking, necessarily — just more … irresistible.

Linney seemed to be alone out there, even with the other actors on stage. This isolation is clearly part of Merteuil’s character, as she even explains in great detail in a late scene. It felt like the was against a blank canvas at times, with little to react to, except when paired with the clownish Madame de Volanges or the mousy Cécile. I’d like to think there was better chemistry with her intended leading man.

The swordplay toward end between Valmont and Danceny was a letdown, too. Notably, these were the only two actors to appear on stage on separate occasions fully nude. (Damn my obstructed-view box seats!) So, naturally, their pairing for a sword fight was perfect! Unfortunately, their thrusts and parries seemed flaccid and uninspired. Seems to me the passions that would stir two men to draw their weapons in mortal combat should result in something looking more hot-blooded, less practiced — less poorly practiced. By contrast, they seemed sloppy, like two actors missing their marks.

The costumes were gorgeous, inspirational. And the Tony-nominated sets were lush and evocative. A series of curtains and drapery sculptures shifted from scene to scene, unfurling and tightening to match the action on the stage. By the final scene, just before Merteuil reaches her downfall, they had resolved themselves into something resembling a spider web. I feel safe saying this now, as the run is nearly at an end. However, I wish the “theater talk” dramaturge guy before the show had held his tongue and not given away this little confection of scene craft. It would have been far more effective to see it first for myself.

I so love the story, the dialogue, the humor, the moral philosophizing, and of course the Glenn Close/John Malkovich movie, that I am willing to let my petty complaints go. I won’t compare the play to the wholly excellent (with the exception of Keanu Reeves) film. It seems unfair somehow. Every actor has a different interpretation; there are some things Linney did that I actually like better than in the Close performance. I only am grateful that I have her and Malkovich, and Uma Thurman and Swoosie Kurtz and Michelle Pfeiffer at home to refer to again and again as the defining example of bad behavior and truly dangerous liaisons.


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