I’ve seen Christopher Hampton’s Dangerous Liaisons before. I found it pleasing to look at, but boring. I have similar feelings about the 1988 film starring John Malkovich, Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer. The version of Dangerous Liaisons I like best is 1999’s Cruel Intentions. Set in a high school, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe play a pair of devious step-siblings who plot the downfall of wholesome, virginal Annette (Reese Witherspoon).
In Hampton’s 1985 play, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are manipulative aristocrats in 18th-century France who spend their time seducing scores of people and plotting to destroy anyone who embarrasses or rejects them. But try as they might, each is so self-absorbed that I find their cares and goals ridiculous — and very boring. Sitting at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, waiting for the lights to go down, I braced myself for a long night.
But I was pleasantly surprised. The long first act drags in the middle, but director Drew Fracher’s simple vision keeps this story about the sexual escapades of malicious Parisians attractive, light on its feet and often very funny. Heidi Jo Schiemer has risen to the costuming challenges with gorgeous, vivid results.
My hurdle with Dangerous Liaisons is this: I do not care about these people. The Marquise de Merteuil (Corinne Mohlenhoff) is despicable, and I don’t root for her. The Vicomte de Valmont (Giles Davies) is merely a version of her, less smart, with more feeling and double the sleaze. The virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Kelly Mengelkoch), although lovely, is hard to relate to. When she capitulates to the Vicomte, my respect for her is out the window. How can I feel compassion for this woman when she clearly knew better?
The talented and versatile Mohlenhoff as the cunning Marquise plays well against type: A doe-eyed coquette, you’d believe anything she says. Giles Davies as the Vicomte is charming and athletic as he relishes torturing Mengelkoch’s Tourvel, so vulnerable and in love she trembles throughout the entire play. The ensemble of 13 is clearly having a good time onstage. With a beautiful design, humor and the right dose of feelings, Dangerous Liaisons entertains.
DANGEROUS LIAISONS, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through March 10