Christopher Hampton’s play based on the 1782 novel by Choderlos de Laclos is a nasty piece of work that viciously, and sometimes comically, uses sex and seduction as a bargaining chip with the power to destroy. It requires a stylish production, and various actors and companies have attempted to get the play right. Laura Linney and Ben Daniels faced off in one staging, and Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman were the evil protagonists in another. Now we have a new interpretation, a Donmar Warehosue production, with stars Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber squaring off in the sexual battle.
McTeer plays La Marquise de Merteuil and Schreiber is Le Vicomte de Valmont, who have had their own involvement in the past. Now La Marquise proposes that Valmont accomplish seductions with his reward of having sex with her again. Valmont prides himself for his power of seduction, and he cruelly sets out to bed women as part of the game he and the Marquise are playing. It is an ugly gambit, with the potential for inflicting cruelty, as well as ending with a lethal result.
Schrieber is especially deft in the role. His face looks angelic, masking his evil, duplicitous intentions. With expressions and gestures, he injects his actions with comic duplicity. McTeer is adept at hauteur toward Valmont and others, but also effective in unleashing venom and communicating inner pain and distress. The seduction scenes that we witness are alternately funny and mean-spirited, one bordering on rape.
Director Josie Rourke strikes a balance between the nastiness of the interplay and the humor derived from it, and Tom Scutt’s set design and costumes capture the period look required. The supporting cast is well chosen, but the focus rests, as it should, firmly on the stars who bring out the meanness in the play while entertaining us with their maneuvers.
The drama could use some cutting, as after a while the events seem repetitive until a final section demonstrates the ultimate cost of Valmont’s escapades. While this is not a production for the ages, it is certainly a reputable addition to the lore and lure of Hampton’s work. At the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed November 3, 2016.