Chicago Theatre Review
A Dish Best Served Cold
Les Liaisons Dangereuses – Ashton Rep
Christopher Hampton’s dramatic adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ classic 18th century novel is set in France during the years leading up to the French Revolution. The plot of both the novel and the play comprise a morality tale indicting the corrupt idle rich as a collection of bored aristocrats who wile away their days using sex and seduction to degrade and disgrace others. Hampton’s stage adaptation of the novel opened in London in 1986 and transferred to Broadway a year later. Several film versions arose from its popularity. These included, among others, Hampton’s own screen adaptation (which earned him an Oscar), retitled “Dangerous Liaisons,” and later, a modern day version of the story called “Cruel Intentions.”
The play centers around two wealthy ex-lovers, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, along with their love/hate relationship for each other. Searching for some excitement to spice up their otherwise boring, money-laden lives, the pair devise a set of cruel sexual challenges, in an attempt to degrade two virtuous, wealthy women: the married Madame de Tourvel and the young virgin, Cecille de Volanges. While playing this game they also plan to bring down Chevalier Danceny, Cecille’s young music tutor and the object of her affection. Also affected by this nasty business will be Cecille’s mother, Madame de Volanges and Valmont’s aunt, Madame de Rosamonde. The only characters who will escape unscathed are two commoners: Valmont’s wiley courtesan, Emilie, and his mercenary servant, Azolan.
For some reason, director Charlie Marie McGrath has decided to shift her production from 18th century pre-Revolutionary France to late 19th century Russia. Not really a problem, since the play has been transferred (with varying success) to different decades and locales in other productions. However, there’s not much in AstonRep’s production, except for a couple of references to St. Petersburg and two characters sporting Russian dialects, that support this relocation or any reasoning for it. Jeremiah Barr’s clever set design makes excellent use of Raven Theatre’s modest West Stage, creating scene changes through a series of character-propelled moving curtains and set pieces. However, Barr’s light, gauzy, chiffon panels feel more French than Russian. Even Brittany Dee Bodley’s colorful, creative costumes appear more derivative of fashions from the French court of Louis IV than of the Russian Empire, circa 1900. In short, very little about this production seems to support its relocation in time and location.
Some of Ms. McGrath’s direction works; some doesn’t. The manner in which she’s staged scene changes, while they might’ve been accomplished with more simplicity, supply some additional, intriguing insights into various character relationships. The opening of Act II is also quite lovely, especially given that the original novel was so epistolary. It’s choreographed with characters receiving, reading and delivering letters. Letters also figure in the final scene with the stage being strewn with them. The duel is handled with finesse, thanks in part to Claire Yearman’s fight choreography. And Ms. McGrath makes economic use of the intimate space within which she stages her play.
It’s in the production’s conflicting acting styles where the director misses the mark. The best interpretation of Hampton’s play can be found in beautiful Sara Pavlak McGuire’s deliciously amoral, self-centered portrayal of the Marquise. This actress knows completely what she’s doing. She clearly understands of the difference between stylized period acting and contemporary performance. Always in the moment, Ms. McGuire moves about the stage, sits and reclines as if a corset were dictating such an erect position. Most importantly, this actress delivers every syllable with ease, clarity and elegance, all the while dripping with ego and malice. As she’s demonstrated in the past, Sara Pavlak McGuire is one of the best reasons to visit this production.
The always reliable Robert Tobin is comfortably adequate in the role of Valmont, but his whole manner feels too contemporary. So exciting in plays like “God of Carnage” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” Mr. Tobin seems more at home in modern-day dramas. Valmont is a smarmy monster. As with the chess set on Merteuil’s table, Valmont seeks to manipulate everyone around him, especially the Marquise. But most of Mr. Tobin’s line readings and even his physicality are far too relaxed to be this person. He’s just not threatening enough to be the cad he professes to be. In short, the actor seems too nice for this role.
In contrast, Jake Meyer’s Azolan is wily, strong and smugly mercenary with Valmont. As Emilie, Taylor Bostwick does a fine job as a playful lady of the night, but lacks the requisite ferocity to be a real match for Valmont. Alexandra Bennett and Barbara Button are both appropriately elegant and eloquent as Madame de Volanges and Madame de Rosemonde. Jeff Helgeson’s Major Domo is the perfect manservant. Tim Larson has many good moments as Danceny, the handsome violin instructor who first charms his young pupil and then falls in love with her. As the play opens in a mimed music lesson, Mr. Larson plays his role with grace and dignity; he also displays a fine talent for swordplay in the final scenes. However, when conveying anguish or displeasure, the young actor often contorts his face strangely, almost comically. Lovely Emma Ladji also has some well-played scenes as Cecille, but more often than not, she comes off as too contemporary. Ann Marie White’s debut with AstonRep is pleasant and capable in the role of Madame de Tourvel. There are times, unfortunately, when Ms. White’s line delivery becomes staccato and automatic, as if she were merely delivering memorized lines, as opposed to voicing the thoughts and passions of her character. It’s also not completely clear what’s motivating this woman in her relationship with Valmont.
There are several fine performances to be found in this uneven production of Christopher Hampton’s period piece. Proving that revenge is a dish best served cold, director Charlie Marie McGrath has restaged her production of seduction, malice and vindication in Russia, two-hundred years after the story was originally set. The result is mixed, as are the styles of acting found throughout, but Sara Pavlak McGuire’s performance alone, which is perfection, is the reason for seeing this production.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 21-June 21 by AstonRep Theatre Company at Raven Theatre’s West Stage, 6157 N. Clark, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-828-9129 or by going to www.astonrep.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by going to www.theatreinchicago.com.