In a season that favors frothy goodwill, peace on earth, and jolly men compelling one to sit on their lap (whether at the mall or the office holiday party), Theatre de L’Atelier’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, currently playing at Shakespeare Theatre, is something of an acerbic antidote—an aperitif to cut through all the eggnog. Directed by John Malkovich, and translated into French by Fanette Barraya from Christopher Hampton’s original play (which, to make matters even more complicated, was translated from the 18th-century French novel by Choderlos de Laclos), the production is here for a fleeting four days, composing its entire US engagement.
Malkovich’s concept—in which the actors’ costumes are a fusion of bustles, wigs, and skinny jeans, and the Machiavellian Vicomte de Valmont (Yannik Landrein) drafts letters on his iPad—could be hit-or-miss, if it weren’t for the spectacular cast of actors he’s assembled. All, with the exception of Madame de Rosemonde (Sophie Barjac), are under 30, and their youth, combined with a jaded sense of disdain for social piety, gives a familiar tale a biting sense of relevancy.
Landrein appears in virtually every scene as Valmont, the character Malkovich played so memorably in Stephen Frears’ Oscar-nominated Dangerous Liaisons, and his performance is enthralling. Baby face only partially hidden under a wispy goatee, he flips so effortlessly between sociopathic scheming with the Marquise de Merteuil (Julie Moulier) and expressing true vulnerability to the saintly Madame de Tourvel (Jina Djemba) that his elaborate seduction of a paragon of virtue almost looks easy.
Subtitles above the stage offer an English translation of the script, but if it weren’t for de Laclos’s intricately complicated plot, they wouldn’t be necessary at all. Valmont’s exquisite body language, whether he’s arching an eyebrow at the virginal Cécile de Volanges (Agathe Le Bourdonnec) or rolling up his sleeves with the disdain of a bored gynecologist as he manhandles a prostitute (Lola Naymark), needs no translation, and the design elements (costumes, hair, and makeup by Mina Ly) more than do their part to tell the story. Madame de Merteuil, a bitter widow frustrated by a hypocritical, patriarchal society, wears black, from her semi-exposed bustle and immaculately tailored pants to her nicely threatening stilettos. The red corset underneath Madame de Tourvel’s all-white apparel is one of the few notes of excess, hammering home her status as a fallen woman of virtue with the subtlety of a pneumatic drill.
Malkovich, one of the founders of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, pays tribute in more than one instance to the movie that cemented his status as a movie star, including a scene in which the Marquise de Merteuil removes her gaudy makeup much like Glenn Close once did. But by staging the production in French, he also manages to make it more authentic, combining the worst elements of Gallic decadence (je te vois, Dominique Strauss-Kahn) with the poetic nuances of a society in which seduction is sport. It’s hard to imagine a scene in which Valmont tells his mistress that circumstances are beyond his control being quite so ruthlessly cruel if he weren’t saying “c’est independent de ma volonté” over and over again.
The music by Nicolas Erréra also seems fitting, with the familiar classical works chosen to accompany certain scenes offsetting the modern elements in the production. But it’s the performances that make the show so compelling—no easy task given its three-hour running time. The company, with a few exceptions, spends all its time onstage, a tactic that feels overly common at the moment, but one that succeeds in expressing the prying eyes of a bored French aristocracy, condemned by ennui and far too clever for their own good.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is at Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre through December 9. Running time is about three hours, including one intermission. The show contains nudity and strong adult themes. Tickets ($60 to $75) are available through Shakespeare Theatre’s website.