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Les Liaisons Dangereuses Review: Miscast Liev Schreiber in Stylish Ode to Sexual Assault

In keeping with the casting of Liev Schreiber as a frilly 18th century French libertine in the ill-timed if stylish new Broadway revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, may I suggest some actors who could succeed him in the role?

Le Hulk (Lou Ferrigno)

La Roche (Dwayne Johnson)

Le Terminateur (Arnold Schwarzenegger)

Yes, I exaggerate. Schreiber is a versatile and accomplished actor who doesn’t just play violence-prone he-men, like the fixer Ray Donovan in the Showtime TV series or Eddie Carbone in his last foray on Broadway, the 2010 production of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge. Besides, there will be no replacement cast in the Broadway revival of Les Liaison Dangereuses. The show runs only through January, a “strictly limited engagement” – which is a fairly accurate summary of my reaction to it.

Still, Liev Schreiber is either miscast or misdirected in a role that Alan Rickman first brought to life in the first Broadway production in 1987 and John Malkovich portrayed in the 1988 film adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play, which is itself an adaptation of a novel written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos in 1782. In these memorable performances, the Vicomte de Valmont is a character whose powers of seduction are not based on masculine virility but on a nearly feminine silkiness – and a willingness to be coldly and cruelly deceitful.

Sex is a parlor game and a power game for Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer), who is his ex-lover, confidante, and, as we eventually realize, bitter adversary. As the play begins, Valmont sets his sights on two new sexual conquests. The first is Madame de Tourvel (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen), who is religious, virtuous and married – her virtuousness the very reason Valmont wants her to succumb to him. The second is at Merteuil’s request – Cecile (Elena Kampouris), a naive fifteen-year-old educated in a convent who is about to be married off to a man who long ago left Madame Merteuil for another woman. It is a wrong Merteuil plans to avenge by having Valmont deflower his bride-to-be.

The play’s depiction of the process by which Valmont sets upon his missions, and of the complications that ensue, is meant to entertain us by straining its outrageous malice through its stylishness and wit. The look of this production is certainly impeccable. Mark Henderson’s lighting design stands out, for the chandeliers filled with actual lit candles that appear to be the major source of light. Tom Scutt’s costumes are sumptuous and his sets are telling – grand facades that are ostentatiously falling apart, filled with magnificent oil paintings and furnishings that are one by one removed, leaving nothing but emptiness. The production design thus hints at an authorial condemnation of the decadent goings-on. There is even the subtlest suggestion that the aristocratic characters’ immoral game-playing helps explain the forthcoming French Revolution. Add to this elements of the plot that feel like shades of the old Hollywood code, in which several of the characters end up paying a price for their depravity. All this surely allows the audience to feel less guilty about delighting in the cruelty of the characters. Indeed, I overheard someone implying that “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is the kind of adult, sophisticated fare that you rarely see on Broadway these days. But strip away the British locutions, the elegant costumes and the fancy fencing, and the (mostly) quality performances: Does Valmont’s “seduction” of the child Cecile, in which he carries her onto the bed, and sticks his hand under her dress, in some way differ from a sexual assault? Are Valmont and Merteuil’s boasting accounts of sexual exploits all that distinguishable from the Access Hollywood “locker room talk” between Trump and Billy Bush?

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Booth Theater
Directed by Josie Rourke. Sets & costumes, Tom Scutt; lighting, Mark Henderson; sound, Carolyn Downing; composer & music supervisor, Michael Bruce; fight director, Richard Ryan; production stage manager, Jane Grey.
Cast Janet McTeer, Liev Schreiber, Raffi Barsoumian, Katrina Cunningham, Ora Jones, Elena Kampouris, Mary Beth Peil, Josh Salt, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Joy Franz, David Patterson, Laura Sudduth.
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission.
Tickets: $42- $149 (premium up to $275)
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is set to run through January 22, 2017

Update: Les Liaisons Dangereuses is closing two weeks early, on January 8, 2017.

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About New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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