There are two types of people at Yale — those who have read the original novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” and those who have seen “Cruel Intentions.” Either way, everyone has their own clandestine love affair with this story of passionate ardor, scandalous secrets and the price of revenge. For it is a story that reels you in: both engaging and troubling, at times quickening and at other chilling the blood.
The undergraduate production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” which premiered this Thursday at the Yale Repertory Theatre, brings the story of two devious ex-lovers blazing back to life, tantalizing in its quick-witted dialogue and coquettish charm.
Set in Paris in the final days before the French Revolution, the play reveals a side of Paris that is “already burning,” hidden away in the chateaus and bedrooms of the aristocracy. Merteuil (Sarah Rosen ’12) and Valmont (Alex Kramer ’12) are on a quest of seduction and manipulation, luring in unknowing innocents for their own amusement. The winner will be the one who triumphs in the most elaborate deceit. A scorned Merteuil wishes to taint the purity of her cousin Cecile (Calista Small ’14), the fiancée of a former lover, to embarrass him throughout all of France. To do so, she needs the help of the devilishly handsome and cunning Valmont. But Valmont has his own plans to seduce the virtuous and married Madame de Tourvel (Willa Fitzgerald ’13).
This seemingly simple narrative thickens when Cecile falls in love with her music teacher Danceny (Cambrian Thomas-Adams ’14) and Valmont — playing the part of a tortured and dedicated lover — similarly falls for Madame de Tourvel. As the rivals challenge each other to greater and greater heights, morality is thrown to the wind and spectators find themselves enraptured in a twisted but deliciously sexy game. The play crescendos into a forte of opulence, vanity and jealousy, tinged with regret.
The banter is skilfully delivered and tensions are subtle, manifesting themselves in Madame de Tourvel’s sobbing pleas that Valmont leave her alone and Cecile’s naïve desire to gain the (carnal) knowledge that will please her lover Danceny.
Under this seemingly shallow façade, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” explores the complex and often overlooked issues brewing in eighteenth-century France. Glimpses of feminism reveal themselves in Merteuil’s character, as she haughtily proclaims to Valmont, “I will avenge my sex and dominate yours.”
While Rosen’s depiction of Merteuil enthrals and captivates, the constant hysteria of Madame de Tourvel grates the nerves. Kramer is entertaining — adding a certain flightiness and fervency to Valmont’s mannerisms, while Small and Thomas-Adams present a beautifully saccharine young love.
The audience will thoroughly enjoy the provocation, wit and eloquence expressed in the inconsistencies of the characters and the frenzied passions that dictate their lives. The psychological thrills and the trying dilemmas are palpable to the audience. “Oh, the threat of suicide, the promise of reform,” he titters when describing the process of the ultimate fall from grace of Madame de Tourvel.
Who is sincere? What is true? There is no knowing. But one thing is for sure: revenge is a dish best served cold.
“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” will run at the Yale Repertory Theatre will be showing this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.