Under the title, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, this 1985 play by Christopher Hampton won the Laurence Olivier Award as Best New Play. It was adapted from the 1782 novel of the same title by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and made into an acclaimed film in 1988 with Glenn Close and John Malkovich, under the anglicized title used here, Dangerous Liaisons. It chronicles the devious machinations of two scheming aristocrats, Viscount Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, who use seductions and intrigue to pay off slights, real or imaginary.
The play is intended to be sophisticated, a look behind a silken curtain at the evil of mankind, exposing its selfish, self-aggrandizing behavior, cruel and careless of others. We need to see the smooth, polished veneer of civilization, before we see the rot at its core, what Harold Pinter called "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet". Unfortunately, the cast and direction fall seriously short of creating such a world, though there are some fine individual performances.
Amy Warren portrays the evil Marquise, and she is excellent. She knows the rhythmic speech pattern of witty repartee, and has the intelligence to understand what is being said. Lisa Wartenberg plays Madame de Tourvel, who resists the advances of the viscount, and she finds the complexity in her troubled defense of virtue. And Erica Bundy plays the courtesan Emilie, providing beauty and charm.
The other female roles fare less well. Adrienne Shearer plays Cecile Volanges, young and fresh from a convent, but her behavior seems giddy rather than youthful. Her mother (Erin Kidwell) resorts to fluttering a fan and over-acting to create a personality, and Julie Oliver as Madame de Rosemonde plays her with many gestures of age but little of the authority expected from a well-to-do hostess.
Nick Reid plays Azalan, the viscounts's valet, and creates an over-the-top vivid persona, riveting in its daring. It's out-of-sync with the rest of the play, but is vastly entertaining. Dustin Salinas plays Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny, and as a music teacher in Act One seemed ill at ease and skittish, but was better in later scenes. Anthony Torres played a footman, Daniel Bevan played a majordomo, and CarrieLee Sparks portrayed a maid.
The viscount is played by Tom Stell, artistic director of Obsidian Art Space, and seldom has a skilled actor been so miscast. Stell has been powerful and nuanced in a series of previous roles, many of them blue-collar, but here is hopelessly wrong for this stylized drawing-room drama. His line readings are flat, without enthusiasm, intonation, or charm, and he inexplicably seems to want to project sincerity, while the role calls for deliberate, but persuasive, insincerity. The viscount is meant to be un homme fatale, an irresistible man, but this not what we see on stage.
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The play is directed by Ron Jones, who hasn't created the desired ensemble acting that can make the world of the play seem plausible. And he failed to help Stell find the character of the viscount - since this is the leading role, the play never really comes to life. A variety of minimal set changes were handled adroitly, often to sprightly music, the sound was excellent, the costumes were elaborate, and some of the furniture seemed authentic and graceful.
A sophisticated, award-winning drama loses its charm as the protagonist is seriously miscast, though some individual performances shine brightly.
Dangerous Liaisons continues through September 28, from Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak. For information or ticketing, call 832-889-7837 or contact www.obsidianartspace.org.