Interplay and Windy City Theater Company

Watching Interplay and Windy City Theater Company’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, I found it hard not to wish Christopher Hampton had written his adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ notorious novel about seduction and sexual intrigue as a one-man show starring that irresistible rogue the Vicomte de Valmont. That way Christopher Cartmill, who plays Valmont, would have been free to give his extraordinary and charismatic performance without having to share the stage with the amazingly uncharismatic lesser talents who make up the rest of the play’s cast.

Not that Cartmill shouldn’t be the dominant actor in the show, for the play belongs to Valmont. Not only is he the most interesting, the most dangerous, the most sexually active character–at one time or another he has slept with every woman in the show except his maiden aunt–but without Valmont, nothing would happen. It is Valmont who initiates young Cecile, who has just finished her convent education, into the mysteries of sex. It is Valmont who pursues Madame de Rosemonde and tempts her into adultery. And it is Valmont who encourages the shy music teacher Chevalier Danceny to pursue Cecile.

This is why John Malkovich’s passive, asexual portrayal of Valmont in the movie (based on Hampton’s play) was so unsatisfying–he hardly seemed the sort of character who would even bother to get up in the morning, much less the sort to persuade a good Christian woman to desert her virtue and her husband in favor of a rogue. Cartmill’s incredibly charming, seductive, and foppishly sexy Valmont seems far more likely to lead a woman astray. Cartmill all but slithers as he turns from one liaison to another, proving that he is truly the subtlest beast in the field.

However, Valmont’s paramount importance is no excuse for everyone else in the play to slack off. If Cartmill steals scene after scene, he does so by default.

Of the other nine members in the cast, only Treva Tegtmeier, as a courtesan, and David Mendes, as Cecile’s painfully sincere lover, play their characters with any commitment. Neither role is particularly large–though Mendes does get a great sword-fight scene in the second act, and Tegtmeier does pack a lot of stage presence into her few short minutes of stage time. The rest of the cast mill around like a pack of poorly rehearsed understudies who expect at any minute to be plucked out of the show and replaced with better actors.

Dorothy Milne in particular is absolutely colorless as the Marquise de Merteuil, which is a shame because she is supposed to be every bit as manipulative, seductive, and untrustworthy as Valmont. In Milne’s less than capable hands, she is no more dangerous than a small-town gossip. Milne muffs every one of the Marquise’s venom-filled lines (Valmont: “I thought betrayal was your favorite word.” The marquise: “No, no, cruelty. I always think that has a nobler ring to it”). In the process she turns the marquise from the sort of woman who would stab you in the back to the sort who would bore you to death at a cocktail party. Glenn Close–who overplayed the marquise in the movie–has nothing to fear from Dorothy Milne.

The surprising thing is that Milne is far from the worst actor in the show. She at least seems capable of adding a second dimension to her character. That can’t be said of Pamela Webster, who gives a zomboid performance as the object of Valmont’s fixation, Madame de Rosemonde. Webster’s glassy-eyed expression and monotonous delivery make us wonder why Valmont spends as much time as he does trying to seduce her. And Karen Sheridan’s performance as Madame de Volanges is amazingly lackluster considering her much more dynamic performances in the Bailiwick Directors Festival and in The Wind in the Willows.

Of course only bad direction can account for so many off performances in a single show. Hampton’s wonderful play should crackle with sexual desire. Under David Perkovich’s direction, it has all the sexiness of a stale marriage.