The characters and schemes in Christopher Hampton's 1985 play "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," based on the novel written two centuries earlier by Choderlos de Laclos, aren't easily viewed dispassionately, let alone blithely.
As the handsome revival now at Center Stage underlines, for all of the would-be Oscar Wilde-ian wit and intriguing layers, there's just no getting around the fact that this pre-French Revolution drama pivots around what is we now know to be sexual abuse. And if there's one thing we're all more conversant about, more on guard against, than ever before, it's sexual abuse.
So there's something awfully uncomfortable about witnessing this game of cat and louse played by a pair of aristocrats — former lovers and now supposed friends, the Marquise de Merteuil (Suzzanne Douglas) and the Vicomte de Valmont (Brent Harris). As they fiddle with other people's minds and morals, the two go from playful to warring. Each has a hold on the other. Neither will accept loss of face.
Caught in the middle are two unsuspecting women — Cecile (Noelle Franco), a virginal teen fresh out of a convent; and Madame de Tourvel (Gillian Williams), a faithfully married 22-year-old. The Marquise wants Valmont to seduce the former to punish a lover who left her and now expects to wed Cecile. Valmont prefers to concentrate his efforts on the latter, so he can feel "the excitement of watching her betray everything that's most important to her."
In the end, Valmont lends his services to the Marquise's cause. But, all the while, he sticks steadfastly to his own desires regarding Tourvel. What happens to his emotions along the way sets up the final battle between the Vicomte the Marquise, a battle that leaves far too many casualties.
De Laclos may not have realized how potent a prequel to the Revolution he crafted with his novel, but Hampton seizes on that implication. The play is infused with a sense of impending doom, of soul-less, careless, well-off people whirling along from bed to bed, oblivious to any rumble outside.
The Center Stage production, fluently directed by Hana S. Sharif, doesn't hammer this point, but does culminate with a compelling image that brings everything into tight focus.
The effectiveness of that final stage picture (Matthew Richards' expert lighting is a key component) may not entirely mitigate the previous two and a half hours of unpleasant protagonists and hideous manipulations. But it helps.
So, too, in a strange way, does the humor.
One-liners can't really disguise the nature of the dastardly business, of course. But you can pretend now and then that this is just another epigram-dripping comedy of manners when, say, the mendacious Valmont declares: "If there's one thing I can't abide, it's deceitfulness." Or when the glib Marquise admonishes: "Love is something you use, not something you fall into, like quicksand."
Does this tale of dangerous liaisons speak in some freshly relevant way to our own time?
The monied classes have been known to behave cavalierly, to be sure, and powerful men can still treat women as objects to be chalked up for sport. But Hampton's long, sometimes belabored play doesn't quite rise to a profound level that might provide a thoroughly compelling lesson about who and what we are today.
For the most part, Center Stage effectively balances the light and dark elements of the piece. And the richly outfitted cast (Fabio Toblini designed the costumes) glides through Michael Carnahan's elegant, flexible set.
It's possible to wish for stronger chemistry between Douglas and Harris, a sense of still-smoking embers to suggest what zesty lovers they once were.
But Douglas conveys the cunning character of the Marquise with ease. Her expressive eyes have a sizable impact, especially as she detects how much she stands to lose.
Harris neatly captures Valmont's blend of ennui, cynicism and arrogance. He could do more, though, to reveal the effect of the character's unexpected feelings for Madame de Tourvel. There is hardly any difference of tone or gesture after he undergoes a change of heart — more accurately, after he discovers that he actually has one.
Williams does polished work, letting the gradual descent of Madame Tourvel's neckline over the course of the play speak subtly for her weakening defenses. Franco's performance as naive Cecile moves assuredly from girlish to kittenish to radiantly unbuttoned.
Supporting roles are ably filled, particularly by Elizabeth Shepherd, whose burnished voice and perfect inflections animate the character of Valmont's aunt, Madame de Rosemonde.
Note that the production contains a hint of simulated sex and some nudity (given the pressure on some of the bodices, there might easily be more).
If you go
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" runs through Dec. 23 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $20 to $64. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.