VICE and depravity wrapped up like a box of bonbons, costumes to die for, a dashing swordfight - and while virtue isn't rewarded, at least the wages of sin are ironically paid.
What is there not to like in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"?
As revived last night by the Roundabout, Christopher Hampton's play is sensual, oddly naughty and totally, impassively immoral.
That sensuality is neatly caught by Rufus Norris' elegantly paced staging and the leads: the couthly chilly Laura Linney, as La Marquise de Merteuil, and a splendiferous Ben Daniels, enjoyably snakelike as the urbane Le Vicomte de Valmont.
The naughtiness constantly undercuts the immorality, as it did in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 epistolary novel of French aristocrats dangerously liaising, and from those gently lascivious 18th-century paintings by Boucher and Fragonard, all frothy skirts and rosy cheeks.
But in the play it largely comes from Hampton's froufrou prose, which in its twisty good manners sometimes sounds like an English translation of a French translation of an English comedy of manners such as Sheridan's "The School for Scandal." And it's acted in much the same English high style.
You can grow a little tired of Daniels' consistent use of one slightly bent knee placed elegantly in front of the other to express the mannerisms of an 18th-century buck. His lubricious performance as Valmont is lighter, wittier and far less passionate than that of Alan Rickman, who originated the role both in London and New York.
But the sheer joyous relish he takes in a wickedness he can't stop, even when his happiness and life depend on it, is horrifically convincing.
Rather less convincing is Linney's unbroken hauteur as the vengeful, conniving Marquise. She seems to be playing poker while Daniels (not to mention Hampton and Laclos) are more persuasively engaged in chess.
Mamie Gummer (yes, the daughter of Meryl Streep) plays Cécile, the convent girl seduced into wantonness, with just the right gauche charm; Jessica Collins, as Madame de Tourvel, Valmont's final and fatal love, hints at but never quite catches her character's febrile ambiguity.
The staging is full of neat cameo performances, notably Sian Phillips' gutsy yet world-weary Madame de Rosamonde and Benjamin Walker as a confused young lover, Le Chevalier Danceny. Norris has made the play cinematic in its fast dissolves, delicately lit by Donald Holder, fading one scene into the next as if by mirrors.
Set designer Scott Pask makes this profusion of mirrors, elegant doors and windows and a few handsomely chosen pieces of furniture into a symbol of France's ancien regime, while Katrina Lindsay's succulent costumes have an impeccable rightness.
The sword fight, most inventively contrived by Rick Sordelet, was played to the hilt by Valmont and his flustered rival, Danceny. It was a splendid exercise in style - with the passion the production as a whole lacked.
The earlier Broadway staging by Howard Davies suggested an emotional wasteland of carnage, with all passion spent.
Here the stakes seem less, but the game remains eminently well worth watching.
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Show Run Time: 2 hours & 40 minutes with 1 intermission
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