Teasing ‘Liaisons’ doesn’t pull it off

Selling seduction but failing to entirely seduce, the Dramat’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” isn’t as steamy as its bold and aggressive advertising suggests. Nudity? A little, but barely. Sex?ÊYes, and some pretty good kissing. But a pervasive sense of mutual control and manipulation between the vengeful Marquise de Merteuil and the beguiling Vicomte de Valmont just isn’t there. Under the direction of Brian Feehan, this play suffers from nothing but a lack of magnetism between the two characters whose sadistic lust for each other (and its disintegration) is supposed to be so powerful that it destroys all else.

As all “Cruel Intentions” fans know, Valmont (Ja-Shukry Shia ’03), he who “never opens his mouth without first calculating what damage he can do,” is enticed by the Marquise (Elizabeth Shapiro ’03) to seek revenge on the Comte de Gercourt, who left her for a lover of Valmont’s. To do this, Valmont will seduce little Cecile de Volanges (Lauren Worsham ’05), the chaste and convent-educated young lady to whom Gercourt is now engaged. Valmont refuses the challenge as too weak to accept, only to change his mind when he happens to read a slanderous letter written by Cecile’s mother, Madame Volanges (Amanda Eckerson ’06), to Tourvel (Francesca Cecil ’04) and decides that Cecile is an easy but worthwhile conquest. Tourvel is the hard-won prize Valmont’s seasoned libido seeks, and she just so happens to be staying with his aunt, Rosemonde (Jennifer Jamula ’05), to whom he cannot help but pay frequent visits.

Valmont’s tactics of seduction, namely good deeds kept just-not-secret-enough, and his protestations of the “I became fascinated by your goodness” variety don’t do it for Tourvel, but his proficiency soon earns him the position of titillating teacher to Cecile’s willing student. As Valmont, Shia gains depth as his character falls more violently in love with Tourvel — and I mean violently. His physical acting is superb, whether he is weaving in and out of Merteuil’s tentacled grasp, romping with Cecile, catching a faint Tourvel in his arms or grasping her prostrate body with a violence that makes you wince. His initial foppish vanity and irritating conviction that one raised eyebrow lends an air of jauntiness to his performance dissolves as he gains confidence as a performer and as a lover, rather than as a seducer. It is a pleasing evolution of both actor and character, an evolution that makes his dueling believable and his love seem genuine. His role requires Shia to command the stage, and he does.

If only he didn’t have to find his primary source of anguish, resentment, and perverse love in Merteuil. Shapiro as Merteuil acts mainly with her mouth and forearms, casting each about rather stiffly and acting more toward the audience than the man over whom she assumes she possesses supreme power. Her eyes captivatingly betray a confidence that she “always knew [she] was born to dominate your sex” and a lingering consciousness of her own terrible vindictiveness for having been born a woman at all. Shapiro understands this and plays it well, but not with Valmont. Her power is spectacularly depicted over Danceny (Chris Grobe ’05), little Cecile’s music teacher and would-be lover.ÊWith every twirl of her finger through his hair, the audience sees Merteuil’s sexual command over her “schoolboy,” and the sadder truth that her power is only sexual — a power that worked on Valmont until his life became more than simply sex.

As Danceny, Grobe is positively grand. From the moment he steps onto the stage, the audience is drawn to the entirety of his body, from his earnest face to his nervously tapping toes, because his acting involves every inch between the two. Because of this, he and Valmont make excellent dueling partners. Furthermore, Grobe’s charm is such that it makes his seduction by Merteuil all the more dismaying.ÊHis charm is rare as far as the smaller characters go in the course of these “Liaisons.” As Emelie, the courtesan who brings Valmont pleasure, Tourvel pain, and the audience the only bit of nudity it was so amply promised, Stripling isn’t much more than an ass to write on. Her performance turns into a gaudy caricature of a courtesan that defies the audience to imagine itself in the 1780s. Worsham is equally distracting — her seduction is convincing and her naivete and playfulness in Valmont’s bed are delightfully sugary, but her precariously balanced wig leaves the audience with nary a glimpse of her face or her ability to act. And then there’s the sad case of Ian Lowe as Azolan, Valmont’s manservant. He speaks in a cockney accent — exactly why this is so is never explained, particularly since the play is set in France, not England. The audience is left to wonder if it is merely a clumsy attempt to indicate class distinctions.

Cecile, as Valmont’s beloved, is commendable for her convincing goodness, and her very agreeable appearance of being charmed.ÊHer sometimes-lost whispery trill makes her difficult to hear, but this is not a persistent problem and her cultivated innocence leaves no doubts as to why Valmont is so head-over-heels.ÊAs Valmont’s aunt, Rosemonde, Jamula is Tourvel’s most gallant protector and equally skillful at projecting to the audience the feeling that she truly cares.ÊAlso impressive about her performance is the sea change she undergoes from puttering old lady who is delighted with the world to the grand old dame shooting daggers through her eyes as sparkling as her brooch at the cruel surviving Merteuil.

At first unsure if it is dealing in comedy or tragedy, “Liaisons” serves up a confusing bit of both, but the skill of most of the cast demands an emotional involvement that builds a nest for the tragedy so painfully birthed upon the stage. Although far from the romp that the advertisements imply, this play gains strength when it finally forgets to be so self-consciously scandalous.

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