KPBS AIRDATE: February 5, 1992
I might go so far as to call it “Les Liaisons Merveilleuses.” Every time the spunky Moonlight Amphitheatre takes a risk, it gets a high return on its investment. This production is luscious, and beautifully done.
It’s a familiar story of the corruption of money and power, the use of sex as a weapon, the destructive manipulation of virtue and idealism by the ruthless forces of vengeance and narcissism. Based on a celebrated 1782 novel by Choderlos de Laclos, “Les Liaisons” is no frozen, distant, period piece. The civilized savagery we view in the late 18th century is no stranger in the late 20th. The battle between the sexes is far from over. And there are always malicious but irresistible seducers who can turn their amusement into annihilation.
In this witty, literate drama, the chief players are the vicious voluptuary, the Marquise de Merteuil, and the rakish roué, her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont. For reasons of revenge and amorality, they set out to seduce a variety of innocents, and ultimately cause a great deal of destruction. We observe the sardonic seductions, undertaken with the icy heartlessness that makes it clear why their society was headed for the guillotine. British playwright Christopher Hampton isn’t preaching, but one would be dense to miss the timely message.
This is not an easy play to mount. There are eighteen scenes and swiftly-changing locales. The dialogue is sharp and intelligent and filled with epigrams and double entendre. Director Gary Krinke pared down and simplified the lines and plot twists, to fine effect. He keeps the action brisk, swirling, almost frenetic at times, with some of those inter-scene changes becoming intrusive. But, along with a masterful technical staff, he has brilliantly captured the look and feel of this opulent, salacious, and emotionally barren world.
At the icy center are Patti Goodwin and Roy Guenther Werner, as the Marquise and Valmont — clad in off-white, like everyone else, looking beautiful against a background of beige — and displaying, with great finesse, the mesmerizing appeal of unadulterated evil. Sometimes we actually root for the bad guys. We get caught up in their demonic energy. We believe their sensuality and their cruel insensitivity. Their victims seem so weak and pale and spineless by comparison.
This is a chilling evening of theater, a coolly cynical commentary on those times – and these. It doesn’t take a Malkovich or a Close to make it happen. It takes a detailed, well-orchestrated plan, and more than a dash of pluck for a community theater to mount an exciting San Diego premiere of an important and intelligent play. Try not to miss it.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.