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Variety Review

'Liaisons' revival is dangerously good, seductive

By Elysa Gardner


NEW YORK — Love is a many splendored thing — except when it isn't.
In the Roundabout Theatre Company's new production of Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses (*** out of four), the characters played by Laura Linney and Ben Daniels at first seem resolutely unromantic. Anti-romantic, you might even say.


The conniving Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, her former lover and ally in seduction and destruction, were introduced on Broadway 21 years ago by Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman. They're known to movie fans via Glenn Close and John Malkovich, who in the 1988 film adaptation evoked the tortured passions underlying the Marquise's ice-queen malevolence and the Vicomte's cavalier cruelty.


The stars of this revival, which opened Thursday at the American Airlines Theatre, are worthy inheritors. Linney portrays the impervious elegance of a certain type of society woman as ably as Close did. But Linney also transmits an inescapable warmth, making the Marquise's ability to disarm her victims completely convincing, while giving us scrupulously subtle glimpses of her enduring ardor for Valmont.


The witty Daniels, in contrast, seems impenetrable, at least until we grasp the full extent of Valmont's feelings for the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, whose honor he intends to destroy for reasons more complicated than he realizes. When forced to confront his love for this married woman, and how he has hurt her, Daniels powerfully evokes his ravaging guilt and regret.


Scott Pask's sets and Paul Arditti's sound design give Liaisons, set in late 18th-century France, a baroque, at times melodramatic sensuality. But director Rufus Norris ensures that the characters' carnal impulses are accessibly earthy, and he doesn't miss the humor in their travails. Mamie Gummer is drolly adorable as Cecile, the virginal but curious teenager who becomes part of a scheme to avenge another of the Marquise's exes. Benjamin Walker is endearing as Cecile's devoted but clueless young suitor, and Rosie Benton is appropriately luscious and lascivious as a crafty courtesan.


The older supporting actresses, along with Linney, reinforce the more sober, post-feminist insights informing Hampton's spicy period piece. "Men enjoy the happiness they feel; we can only enjoy the happiness we give," the excellent Sian Phillips, as Valmont's wise aunt, tells Madame de Tourvel. "So to hope to be made happy by love is a certain cause of grief."


In spite of that, and the play's tragic consequences, this Liaisons provides naughty, provocative fun.


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DEC 2009
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