Center Theater

If the term “history” makes any kind of sense, then surely it describes the structure and destruction of human relationships. In that sense, Quartet has a historical theme. –Heiner Muller

Four years before Christopher Hampton gave us the stage adaptation of Les liaisons dangereuses, there was East German playwright Heiner Muller’s Quartet, a tour de force for two actors that boils the 18th-century Choderlos de Laclos novel down to the poisonous love/rivalry between Valmont and Madame de Merteuil.

Muller grew up in Nazi Germany, spending time in the Youth Labor Force, and was taken as a POW at the end of the war. He’s seen the reunification of Germany, and as the president of the East German Academy of Arts has struggled to unify German theater without sacrificing East German culture. It’s difficult to avoid searching his work for its political overtones–and in his Quartet Valmont and Merteuil do indeed seem an engaging pair of drawing-room fascists, struggling for power over the limited sphere they hold in common. But as Muller himself says, this is a play about human relationships. To bog it down with too much political interpretation would be a mistake.

This excellent Center Theater production, directed by Dan LaMorte, makes no such mistake; indeed, it never stumbles once in presenting Carl Weber’s translation of Muller’s dense, difficult text. The production begins with a piece of music overrated and much overused–the “O Fortuna” chorus from Carmina Burana–but then segues into a tongue-in-cheek techno-pop version, promising new twists on old themes. Geoffrey M. Curley’s prerevolutionary French drawing room, all genteel pinks and mauves, is surrounded by mirrors–whose lethal-looking, beautifully crafted ornamental spikes are indicative of the performances they reflect.

If this is a play about the destruction of human relationships, Muller couldn’t have picked a relationship more fascinating than that between the coolly savage Madame de Merteuil and her constant adversary/sometime lover Valmont. Muller dispenses with most of the other characters in the novel and concentrates on Valmont’s seduction of the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, as well as his despoiling, at Merteuil’s urging, of Volange, her virginal niece. All scenes take place in Merteuil’s drawing room, where Valmont and Merteuil act out these various seductions for each other, playing by turn the seduced and the seducer: thus the quartet.

Nice, meaty stuff for actors. And to say that Robin Witt and Marc Vann do not disappoint is a drastic understatement. Witt in particular gives a finely controlled, passionate, stunning portrayal of a woman held together with corset strings and steel. Better still is her complicated depiction of Merteuil playing Valmont in the act of seducing Tourvel, who’s played by Valmont. Witt is a magnetic, androgynous wonder with a mongoose stare, perfectly countered by Vann’s fey, snakelike Valmont. When Valmont coyly disrobes, playing Tourvel, Vann allows us to see Tourvel as Valmont must surely see her–as a wanton at heart. And with his long wig and body language, Vann almost convinces us that he is a naked woman. Focused, sexy, virulent, and often comic, these performances are rarely less than compelling. And LaMorte’s intelligent, light-handed direction makes the slow disintegration of these two human beings as they turn into insatiable machines inevitable, never tedious.

The only political allegory imposed on this production comes in an oft-repeated gesture of Valmont’s–a stiff-armed diagonal wave reminiscent of a Nazi salute. More chilling by far is Merteuil’s description of the ideal lover as “blind and deaf-mute.” The best love can be trampled on–it’s “the love of stones.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/JoAnn Carney.