Saturday, November 05, 2016

Taut, terrific “Dangerous Liaisons” takes the stage at ACT Theatre

Dangerous Liaisons
ACT Theatre
Through November 20, 2016

Begin with a beautiful “moment” of set (an ornate door here, a small French desk there, a divan) and add two handfuls of beautifully dressed and coiffed actors sailing through and around the set, mix in some biting sarcasm on love and fidelity, sprinkle a dash – or maybe two or three – of seduction, and you have the delicious recipe for a murderous dramedy. This is the world of Dangerous Liaisons at ACT Theatre.

The world of these pre-revolutionary French aristocrats is one of cards, wine, social one-upmanship and appearance of propriety. Christopher Hampton’s play, which you might have seen as a movie, strips away the velvet coating so we might see the toxic underground of a few particular combatants. Two in particular are hell-bent on revenge and winning. Or maybe winning and revenge.

The Marquise de Merteuil (Kirsten Potter) and the Vicomte de Valmont (James DeVita) are former lovers who are honest enough friends to be able to tell each other everything, it seems. They honestly reveal their needs for preservation of certain reputations on Valmont’s part – that of a Romeo who can attain the romantic attentions of any woman he sets his sights on, and on Merteuil’s desire to get back at her ex-husband.

Merteuil wants Valmont to seduce the child-bride of her ex-husband, Cecile de Volanges (Jasmine Jean Sim) so that he can find out on his marriage bed that Cecile is not what he thought. Valmont, however, longs for a cap on his reputation by seducing a chaste married woman, Madame de Tourvel (Jen Taylor). He thinks that would be more fun. Merteuil helps him figure out how to do both things at once.

This involves visiting his aunt, Madame de Rosemonde (Wendy Robie) where everyone conveniently descends for a few weeks’ vacation. There the pot boils, the nightly seduction commences, and the intrigue builds toward the twist at the end that only one of the two combatants can see coming.

DeVita and Potter make excellent foils for one another. He delivers his seductions with enough passion to reach the back of the audience, though his love, by the end, of Tourvel is not quite vulnerable enough to demonstrate its ruin of him. Potter is imperious and controlled and plays the scenes where she stirs emotions of others with great panache.

Director John Langs moves everyone around like a master chess player, positioning each for the kill. He’s cast the show with terrific talents, including bringing Wendy Robie to our stage for a delicious small role that she makes entirely her own. Enlisting Brian Sidney Bembridge for set and lights, where Bembridge’s restraint and elegance shines, and sound design that suggests but does not overwhelm from Matt Starritt, Langs delivers an atmosphere where we can all focus exclusively on the actors and the intrigue.

But part of the excess of the play must be focused on the wonderful costuming from Catherine Hunt. She brings a wealth of experience in period costuming and presents a swirl of color and expensive elegance for all the women on stage.

The rest of the talented cast includes Eleanor Moseley as Cecile’s mother, Lorenzo Roberts as Cecile’s music teacher and suitor, Keiko Green as another of Valmont’s lovers, and Jason Marr as Valmont’s servant. Marr brings a touch of smirking humor to the play, which sometimes is a relief, even as he, too, schemes for himself.

A moment near the end had me thinking about the current political season. Merteuil is finally showing Valmont that she has had the upper hand the whole time. She says, “You couldn't bear even the vague possibility of being laughed at. And this has proved something I’ve always suspected. That Vanity and Happiness are incompatible.”

I think that is the perfect description of one Mr. Donald Trump. I don’t think anyone can think he is happy, but probably most will agree with me that he is one of the most vain men in public life. Langs wanted to equate the messages of the play with current politics, where women are seen as playthings and men’s vanity can destroy nations. Do you think it’s apt?

For more information, go to www.acttheatre.org or call 206-292-7676.