BWW Review: Way Off Broadway Productions' Disappointing and Over-Designed LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES
Now would seem the perfect time for a Nashville revival of Christopher Hampton's Les Liasions Dangereuses - an intriguing play about powerful men subjugating women to their sexual domination, private missives between aristocrats made public in order to cause embarrassment, and any perceptibly well-meaning act of charity is undermined by far baser instincts - which is perhaps best known for the movies it has inspired: Dangerous Liaisons and Cruel Intentions.
For local theater-goers, however, it's easy to recall the first production in Music City of the play from Circle Players in 1992. Directed by Rick Seay and featuring a cast of Nashville stage luminaries including Tommy Kohl and Kaul Bluestone as the play's central figures, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de la Merteuil, who hold sway over a small cabal of pre-Revolutionary Parisians engaged in intrigue both sensual and sexual, with scant romance or the pursuit of love figuring into the decadent equation. If you asked theater types of a particular vintage if they remember the production, you'd likely be surprised by the details with which they would describe their recollections. Beautifully designed and compellingly acted, Circle Players' Les Liaisons Dangereuses set the bar so high that even some 27 years later it remains remarkably vivid and somehow fresh in the mind of those who saw it.
Hampton's script, which is based on the 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, offers beguiling characters in scandalous situations and casts a somewhat cynical eye on the machinations of the leading players who view sexual conquest as sport and true love as something essentially unattainable and undeserving of pursuit, wielding their personal power with disregard for its victims. Hampton's play is filled with passion and intrigue - both of which are in short supply in the current mounting of Les Liaisons Dangereuses now onstage at Music Valley Event Center as the latest offering from Way Off Broadway Productions.
Directed by Macon Kimbrough and featuring an ensemble of actors quite familiar to audiences in the region, the production lacks focus, even if it is designed to the hilt in what may best be described as "Bohemian Regency" or "Drag Queen Provincial," a panoply of color and patterns that practically demand equal billing with the actors in the show's playbill. And while the production's visual aesthetic is its chief attribute, it competes for the audience's attention which should, in fact, be focused on the actors and the literature that provides the story its dramatic relevance. Instead, the attention to detail afforded the costumes and scenic design - the women's gowns are luxuriously styled and impeccably crafted (the men's far less so) and the cumbersome set contributes to the lackluster pacing that so often dooms a production.
Set in the years just prior to the French Revolution of 1789, Choderlos de Laclos' epistolary novel (the characters and their stories are brought to life via the exchange of letters among the assorted personages who inhabit his fictional world) serves as a searing indictment of the aristocracy's vainglorious attempts at self-aggrandizement with a total disregard for those of inferior social standing.
One would think that should provide the impetus for jaw-dropping drama - and, clearly, it would if the decision had been made to let the characters come to life organically. But, instead, the production is weighed down by its design, as if all energy has been directed at creating an eye-popping framework for the glorious art contained therein. It would appear as if adolescent angst and some preternatural skepticism were allowed to take hold of the production and its actors, rendering any hope of authenticity impossible, any hoped-for passion drained away like so many leeches left to bleed the very life out of a woman who contracts a fever when she thinks about cheating on her husband.
The stunning, if frenetic, production design provide a visual sense of campy bravado for Les Liaisons Dangereuses - if we didn't know better, we'd say someone had spent far too much time poring over the frenzied coverage of last week's Met Gala (whose theme this year was, indeed, camp), but this is a production that has been in the works for well over a year - but self-deprecation, which is essential to camp, is non-existent. Performances lack any self-awareness due to an over-earnest approach to character development, which obliterates any camp sensibilities. Had the creative team made "camp" the production's concept, adding more farcical underpinnings to the story, and amped up the volume of a more contemporary musical score than the drivel actually used to underscore the sexual intrigue - and made any number of other changes, both facile and otherwise - it might have resulted in a more palatable diversion. On the other hand, things could have further and faster off the rails and I would have been even more ginned up about my time invested in a theatrical misfire.
That's not to say, however, that Les Liaisons Dangereuses doesn't feature any good performances. Cat Arnold, who gets double billing as the production's artistic director, is quite good as Mertueil, particularly in Act Two as her fortunes (both sexual and financial) begin to dwindle. However, she is costumed in dominatrix drag (replete with riding crop and thigh-high boots with "come f me" heels) that distracts from her altogether nuanced performance. Angela Gimlin, as Madame de Tourvel, is styled rather more demurely for her decidedly more repressed character and she is able to momentarily capture her character's ennui, even if it's unclear why she's so downbeat. As the male member of their triangle, Barret Thomas is unequal to the challenge of creating a believable Vicomte de Valmont - the fact he wears sequined jackets atop chinos and modern-day driving shoes seems incongruous and too cute by half, so his audience is unable to suspend disbelief long enough to try to decipher the meaning of his line readings.
As the play's de facto juvenile leads, Braden Wahl plays young music teacher Danceny (I know he's a music teacher from past knowledge, although that detail was lost in the performance reviewed) who is totally smitten by the lovely young Cecile de Volanges (played with confidence by Steph Twomey). When the pair fall victim to the manipulations of Valmont and Mertueil, they remain trapped in their over-designed costumes (Wahl is dressed in a series of sequined doublets and vests with puffy shirts to rival anything Seinfeld could have imagined, atop chinos sans belts and a multi-hued Elizabethan collar, while Twomey wears a gorgeous, if weirdly anachronistic baby-doll recreation of period frippery and frills).
Janice Wilbanks Denson (as Cecile's overbearing maman) and Barbara Hartman (as Valmont's doting aunt Madame de Rosemonde) fare far better, both costume-wise and performance-wise, thanks to the two women's recognition of who their characters are and what they desire. Daniel Morgan, wearing black-and-gold brocade skinny jeans, nonetheless delivers the production's most convincing portrayal as Valmont's valet Azolan.
Megan Blevins puts her stage presence to good use as the courtesan Emilie, even if her brief moments with Thomas' Valmont are stilted and restrained. Hunter Tomsett completes the cast as every major domo in pre-Revolutionary France.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses. By Christopher Hampton. Adapted from the novel by Pierre Coderlos de Laclos. Directed by Macon Kimbrough. Presented by Way Off Broadway Productions at Music Valley Event Center, 2416 Music Valley Drive, Suite 150, Nashville. Through June 2. For details, go to www.wobnashville.org. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).
production photos by Rick Malkin