Stephen Frears' 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons, with John Malkovich and Glenn Close, introduced the story to a new generation. Milos Forman's 1989 movie Valmont helped, too. Christopher Hampton adapted it for the stage in 1986, and now Giles Havergal, who ran the Citizens' Theater in Glasgow for 34 years and turned Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt into a successful play six years ago, is world-premiering a new version of Liaisons at ACT.
The novel is told in letters, and Havergal's innovation is to put some of the letter-writing onstage. He focuses on the main, lusty relationship between the Marquise de Merteuil, a noblewoman, and the rakish Vicomte de Valmont -- both of whom devote their considerable intelligence and leisure time to sexual conquest and bragging about it to each other. When a virginal ingénue named Cécile comes out of a convent at 15 and gets engaged to some foolish despicable nobleman, Merteuil encourages Valmont to deflower her before the wedding (as a joke). But Valmont is distracted by Madame de Tourvel, a pious married woman with "the most delightful contours" strapped inside her bodice. Merteuil dismisses Tourvel as a "church mouse," but Valmont prefers the challenge of his church mouse to the innocence of a girl like Cécile.
At first Merteuil and Valmont trade quips from opposite ends of the stage, one of them holding a letter while the other recites. But Havergal mixes things up: Sometimes Valmont sits at a desk, sometimes he narrates while the scene plays out around him, sometimes he writes on the naked back of his latest dalliance. Now and then Valmont and Merteuil stand next to each other, speaking their letters like people having a conversation; in one scene they chat on cell phones.
Keeping the letters intact maintains the barbed, amoral commentary on each event that makes Laclos' novel so wicked. ("She is truly delicious," Merteuil writes to Valmont about Cécile. "She has neither character nor principles.") The letters also preserve the relationship between Merteuil and Valmont in its original state: Their endless self-gossip amounts to a long-distance romance, and showing them flirting onstage without the letters would be either impossible or artificial.
Still, the letters make for an awfully verbal, writerly show, and Havergal seems aware of this problem. He tries to tart things up with pulsing dance music and screeching electric guitar. The modern music (by PeterD, who mixes in some less obtrusive Baroque) only highlights the prurience, and at its worst, Havergal's Liaisons reminds us of how the novel has served as a kind of highbrow porn for generations of English grad students. The special effects just aren't necessary. Twelve years ago Dorothy Bryant wrote Dear Master and proved (locally, at least) that an "epistolary play" -- just letters performed by a pair of actors, in this case portraying Gustave Flaubert and George Sand -- could be gripping drama, as long as the letters were good. I wish Havergal had trusted his material enough to present it with more simplicity.
The idea behind the bursts of modern music is to float Laclos' story out of 1782 and into our own time. Liaisons was a howl of protest at the cynical pleasure-seeking morals of a corrupt leisure class (published seven years before the French Revolution), and Havergal wants to make it clear that he sees the same patterns today. The blend of modern suits with sumptuous period costumes (by Deborah Dryden), florid Louis-Quatorze furniture with Plexiglas chairs, under a beautiful set of twisting iron vines that can only be described as art nouveau (by Kate Edmunds), makes the point perfectly well. Havergal doesn't have to push it.
He has, happily, a great cast. Marco Barricelli is a preening, arrogant, sinister Valmont, swooping the skirts of his pleated coat like a prince of darkness in front of both his church mouse and Cécile. Lise Bruneau is a steely, dark-eyed Merteuil, maintaining a respectable face while she engineers the destruction of rivals, lovers, enemies, and friends. Elizabeth Raetz does strong work as Cécile, especially after her deflowering. ("I have a passion for the behavior of the morning after," Valmont writes, while Cécile runs into furniture and shrieks at the sight of him like a damaged, baffled dove.) Libby West's Madame de Tourvel is nicely realized, and Joan MacIntosh plays an imperious Madame, Cécile's mother, and the elderly voice of conscience and reason. (MacIntosh's high-pitched delivery seems off-key at first, because she isn't dressed as an old woman; but her performance improves.) Neil Hopkins' work as the bumbling Chevalier Danceny, a young man in love with Cécile, is stilted, however, and needs as much seasoning as Danceny himself.
So Liaisons is a flawed success, a beautiful courtesan in too much makeup and cheap jewelry. Laclos would be pleased, I guess, but only after getting over his deep surprise that audiences -- 221 years on -- are still so fascinated by his book.