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Theater Review: “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”

A. Schaar in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”
Photo credit:
Daren Scott

Ah, those French. Famous for making love a national obsession, their reputation for artful seduction persists even today.

Back in the pre-French Revolutionary 18th century, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos posited a game which would use seduction as the bait for debauchery, revenge and cruelty, and would serve to amuse the idle rich. His novel was called “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” 

New Fortune Theatre Company presents Christoher Hampton’s translation of Laclos’ novel through Jan. 28 at San Diego Repertory’s Space Theatre. New Fortune founder Richard Baird both co-directs (with Kaitlin O’Neal) and stars as Valmont.

The story: the widowed Marquise de Merteuil (Jessica John) and her ex-lover, the single libertine Vicomte de Valmont (Baird) make a bet. Merteuil (who maintains that “love is something you use, not something you fall into”) wants revenge on a former lover, and asks Valmont to help her out by deflowering the 15-year-old virgin Cécile de Volange (Gentry Roth), just released from the convent and now engaged to Merteuil’s ex.

But Valmont refuses the job, declaring it “too easy.”

He has another, much more difficult exploit in mind: the seduction of priggish Madame de Tourvel (Amanda Schaar), married, religious and about as prim as they come, even to wearing a high-necked dress that reveals almost no skin.

It’s not so much the seduction that interests him; it’s the mind game.

He wants “the pleasure of watching her betray everything that’s most important to her.”

Kind of makes your skin crawl, doesn’t it?

This is a pair with ice in their veins, who seem to have lost the passion they now want to deny to (or ruin for) others. But such is the life of the idle rich (at least these idle rich) in the waning days of the Ancien Regime, about a decade before the French Revolution. 

There’s some fine acting on display for this talky play. John’s Mertreuil, for example, is a triumph (if that’s quite the word) of gorgeous viciousness. Baird portrays the confidence of royalty if not the breathless excitement (even pretended) of a lover. Amanda Schaar is excellent as Valmont’s target, the virtuous Mme. de Tourvel. 

It’s Gentry Roth’s Cécile you’ll really feel sorry for, her deflowering scene a bit rougher than Valmont’s smooth talk would lead you to expect.

Connor Sullivan (as Chevalier Danceny, also infatuated with Cécile, Taylor Henderson, Terril Miller, Crystal Brandan and Justin Lang, Neil McDonald and the redoubtable Dagmar Fields (as Valmont’s aunt) all make fine contributions in smaller roles.

Giulio Perrone’s chateau set works nicely on the small playing area, with  changes marked by furniture moves choreographed by John Anderson and carried out in graceful near-dance moves by cast members.

Howard Schmitt’s opulent costumes, AJ Paulin’s effective lighting design and Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design add atmosphere to the morally corrosive actions going on.

This is a difficult piece to pull off. It should be sexy (or at least fascinating), what with all the lies, seduction, debauchery going on, but it’s also extremely talky. Baird and company make a valiant effort, and perhaps will yet settle into the piece and find some excitement in all those words.

The details

New Fortune Theatre’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” plays through January 28, 2017 at the Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.  

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (619) 544-1000 or lyceumevents.org