WHAT “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”
WHERE Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.
INFO $42-$159; 212-239-6200; liaisonsbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Liev Schreiber finds the touching playfulness in this still-shocking play.
Long before there was Ray Donovan, there was Liev Schreiber, the reliably stunning stage actor. Whether playing Shakespeare’s darkness as Iago and Macbeth, or sleaze triumphant in Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” or the shattering grandeur of Arthur Miller’s Brooklyn longshoreman in “A View from the Bridge,” this was an actor who seemed able to do anything he pleased — all with an almost covert intelligence and a radical lack of vanity.
Yet the casting of Schreiber as slinky, high-styled sexual predator Le Vicomte de Valmont in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” threatened to be an uneasy fit. Even with the lure of chemistry with England’s formidably Amazonian talent Janet McTeer as La Marquise de Merteuil, Valmont’s partner in 18th century French sexual manipulation, director Josie Rourke’s celebrated revival from her Donmar Warehouse was hardly a sure thing.
It is one now. Schreiber may never seem inevitably to the manor born. He is not a preener and, at first, that wig with Vulcan hairline hardly eases him into the elegance of Christopher Hampton’s deliciously evil and erotic 1985 adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ scandalous novel.
And yet Schreiber finds another way, an increasingly irresistible way, into a character generally expected to exemplify the exquisite, unrepentant boredom of the pre-Revolution French aristocracy. This Valmont seems more drawn to the mischief of the games he plots with the Marquise that ruin innocent people for sport and revenge. Despite his height and despite the violent moments when rough seductions get cringingly close to what we perceive today as rape, his Valmont is a bit of an imp — bemused, playful, almost touching in his insolent confidence.
Apropos of touching, he also puts his hands up many silk dresses, including one of the gorgeous ones (by Tom Scutt) worn by McTeer in a terrifically layered portrayal that combines steely pride, cruelty and intimations of damaged feminism.
Highlights in Rourke’s mostly marvelous cast include Birgitte Hjort Sorensen as the woman who destroys Valmont with her goodness, Elena Kampouris as the convent girl with the wild streak and Mary Beth Peil as Valmont’s wise but not invasive aunt with the convenient country home.
Significantly, Scutt’s haunting set is already decaying from social upheaval to come. Painting and other treasures quietly disappear through the scenes, which are separated by ghostly, lusty women chanting while moving props and furniture. Jeweled chandeliers are lifted and lowered as they bring candlelight to the salons and bedrooms in Paris and the countryside. Finally, characters extinguish the candle fire with their own hands. Like Schreiber and McTeer in their daring portrayals in a still-shocking play, they are not afraid of being scorched.