When was the last time a play got you all hot and bothered?
Actor and director John Malkovich's lauded production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" has leapt over the Atlantic for a too-short stint at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's smaller Lansburgh Theater.
And we’re going to wager most of the audience had to fan their faces and grip their pearls at some point during the show.
Malkovich, who rose to fame playing the compulsively manipulative Vicomte de Valmont in the film version of the play, now directs this young, and — if I may say so — wildly sexy cast in a revival of the play.
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" is the story of sex, intrigue and revenge. The Marquise de Merteuil (Julie Moulier) and Vicomte de Valmont (Yannick Landrein) are friends and former lovers who get their kicks by seducing, and destroying, any person who happens near them. Merteuil and Valmont are young, rich and bored. Their chief interests include sex, manipulation, seduction and wresting power from and over their peers. Love is a difficult concept for either of these characters to wrap their arms around, so they’ve consciously rejected the emotion.
Before the show even begins, the actors are seen milling about the stage, while the audience mirrors them, trickling into the theater and chatting along the way. The house lights stay up as the action begins, though, slowly, over the course of the play the lights go down and, finally, out during the final fight sequence, when the lights are switched off for long moments.
By the second act, it becomes clear what the director is doing: courting, seducing the audience. Just as Landrein’s Valmont is seducing every character save Merteuil on stage, Malkovich’s production is daring this majority-English-speaking audience to let go.
The production is funny. It is flirtatious. It features a gorgeous, supple and nude courtesan who bops onto the stage and into Valmont’s bed. The audience is provoked, titillated, exasperated and, finally, won over by the incredible Frenchness of it all.
The production is also notable because the actors rarely leave the stage. With a thud of the stick wielded by Valmont’s henchman Azolan (Lazare Herson-Macarel), the actors must quickly switch places. This method has some of the immediacy of an improvisational show; none of the actors can break character for a moment.
The cast is small but incredibly talented. They speak a rapid-fire French, which is gorgeous to hear, but must be hard to translate, as the surtitles miss some parts of the dialogue.
Still, for an audience used to coming to the Shakespeare Theatre Company to watch Shakespeare’s plays, where the ear strains and gives in to language, there is something exciting about letting actors, not the language, lead the audience.
As enticing as Malkovich’s production is, he isn’t necessarily this revival’s secret weapon. What Malkovich’s “Les Liaisons Dangereus” has is Landrein.
Landrein’s Valmont is effortlessly sensual and lethally charming. Without breaking a sweat, the man wins over the entire house. This level of hyper-likeability is critical for the play’s success. Valmont, after all, is an anti-hero, a date rapist, a lothario and, yet, there is something about him that draws in everyone who meets him, including, of course, the audience.
Jina Djemba, who plays opposite Landrein as his long suffering true love Madame de Tourvel, beautifully takes the audience through her character’s arc. Outwardly, she is covered by a pure, virginal white. By the time Valmont is done with her, Tourvel is weeping, broken, wearing only a red corset and underwear. Her face reveals her complete heartbreak. As a bonus, Djemba has a gorgeous voice that is used to its full advantage.
“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is part of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “STC Presents Series,” which means this isn’t a traveling show. It is at the Lansburgh through Sunday, before it sashays back to Paris.