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Arts & Entertainment
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
By Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
June 27, 2008 
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Years ago, when the city of wonders and secrets was still relatively new to me, I found myself wandering Manhattan on a sun-drenched spring Saturday. I’d spent the morning at Bloomingdales, as gay boys did then; it was something of a Saturday ritual. I’d purchased a perfect pair of black pants that, though they needed hemming, would be smashing whenever I got them to the tailor. My boyfriend was out of town visiting his family, and so I had the afternoon to do as I pleased. And that was how I found myself in the tkts. line, where I purchased one front-row mezzanine ticket to the matinee performance of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Though I’d spent my junior year abroad, studying in the south of France, I had never before read Choderlos de Laclos’s 18th-century epistolary novel. Nonetheless, I must’ve heard something about the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan—perhaps something about their mendacious and duplicitous characters, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. The set (designed by Bob Crowley) certainly looked depraved as I took my seat; there were palace chairs scattered about and beds dripping with muslin sheeting, as if the owners of the palace had been caught in flagrante delicto and then hurriedly banished. And once Rickman and Duncan began speaking their lines and inhabiting their venal characters, I became as seduced as Madame Tourvel, the victim of the Vicomte and the Marquise’s evil machinations.

That afternoon, that production, became one of those touchstones of a Manhattan youth, the sort of day that you’re certain you remember nearly every minute of—while any memory of the next day, and the day after that one, totally eludes you. And so it was with a certain degree of trepidation, as well as anticipation, that I found myself returning to the most recent Broadway incarnation of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Laclos.

Next to the 1987 production’s sex-mad boudoir, this latest production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (starring Laura Linney and Ben Daniels, and produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre) was a sumptuous drawing room. With a stage floor entirely sheathed in ebony lacquer as insidious as black ice, and with an entire wall of glistening mirrored windows, the set by Scott Pask highlighted the gleaming surfaces of a louche life rather than its carnal desires. In fact, the set design’s emphasis on superficiality over nails-in-the-flesh depravity served as a metaphor for this latest rendition of Laclos’s novel. This was more a Watteau painting come to life—and less of Fragonard’s The Swing, where the woman pushed on a swing by a priest opens her legs to her lover while high in the air. And yet if one found oneself subconsciously yearning for the de Sadean viciousness of the 1987 production, there was the mitigating circumstance of witnessing these deceitful scenes mirrored in perfect symmetry on the highly reflective black lacquered floorboards. Every fold in every shimmering gown perfectly reproduced, as if by Ingres, for a viewer’s delectation—and as if to remind us yet again that beneath a glittering surface lie treacherous waters.

So was it as good as what I’d remembered? Perhaps more interesting is how the passage of time enables one to comprehend more fully the Machiavellian undertones in the pursuit of love. At play’s end, it’s Madame de Merteuil who’s still standing—but is she actually the winner in Hampton’s retelling of Laclos’s lovers—or merely the survivor?