Way back in 1984, John Malkovich's soul-searing Off-Broadway staging of "Balm in Gilead" proved him as surprisingly distinctive a director as he was a galvanizing actor.
That is definitely still true. Although most of his recent directing has been done in Europe, the Lincoln Center Festival has brought in his steamy and smart French-language (with supertitles) update of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" for a brief, indelible run through Sunday.
Malkovich, who played Valmont, the slinky sexual predator, in the 1988 film, "Dangerous Liaisons," obviously knows the territory. He has adapted and helped to translate Christopher Hampton's 1985 British drama based on the exquisitely nasty pre-revolutionary French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
Nine gorgeous young French actors, auditioned from hundreds for the Theatre de l'Atelier in Paris, play gorgeous young French actors who are practicing their parts in a rehearsal room. They wear stylish street clothes and bits of 18th century costumes. The actor cast as Valmont's valet marks scene changes by banging the floor with a stage pole. The cast sits or lies around in the room, an elegantly run-down color-wash of aquas and browns. Actors lounge and, significantly, listen as fellow actors portray bored 18th century French aristocrats plotting the sexual ruination of their own innocent characters for sport and revenge.
What sounds like a gimmick turns out to be an inspiration. Instead of communicating betrayals and triumphs by letter, as done in the novel, these people use smartphones and tablets. Instead of Valmont writing a love letter to his latest victim on the back of a courtesan, he dictates to her tablet while fondling her naked body from behind.
The results are intimate, true to the source and far more visceral than New York's most recent revival, when the once-shocking play seemed dowdy, long-winded and self-consciously naughty.
Yannik Landrein plays Valmont as a dashing and feral fellow with permanent bed hair, who wears tight jeans with a foppish scarf and convincingly puts his fingers up skirts with casual insistence. Julie Moulier, as the hedonistic merry widow and Valmont's amoral soul-mate, matches him in depravity with just a final intimation of damaged feminism. We watch as fake blood in the climactic duel is squirted, but, with Malkovich in total command, the pain feels real.
WHAT "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"
WHERE Lynch Theater, 59th Street between Amsterdam and 11th avenues, through Sunday
INFO $55-$125; 212-721-6500; lincolncenterfestival.org
BOTTOM LINE Visceral revival, staged in French by John Malkovich