The effect is to restrain some of the more histrionic elements of Hampton’s script, and in the process enhance its psychological viability: Unlike in past productions, this Valmont and Merteuil don’t speak to each other as if they’re anticipating applause for their wit. (Since the play is presented with surtitles, laughter sometimes erupts before they get their lines out, anyway.) These grim professionals can’t afford to squander energy in drawing-room retorts. They have to save it all for where it really counts, in the bedroom.
Malkovich, who played Valmont opposite Glenn Close in Stephen Frears’s 1988 movie version, appears in some intriguing way to have conveyed to his actors that air of sensuous languor that informs his own screen and theater performances. This quality is amplified by the staging. The director strips the production of both its temporal anchor in the late 1700s and its luxe environment: The love letters central to the plot — based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel — are now sent on electronic tablets. And the tousled set on the Lansburgh Theatre stage by Pierre-Francois Limbosch is made to resemble a rehearsal room, with actors’ coats hanging on a metal rack and a table stocked with water bottles.
In a play that’s so much about the seductive power of lying, the conceits’ transparency is smart. Mina Ly’s costumes, a blending of period and modern — the sleekly magnetic Landrein, who looks like a Gallic Gary Oldman, wears skinny jeans under his flowing coat — reinforce the idea that the characters have one foot in an artificial world and one in the real.
To further underline this illusion, Azolan, Valmont’s valet (played by Lazare Herson-Macarel) is given the added jobs in this production of reciting the script’s shifts of time and location, and using a long rod to tap out the starts and finishes of each scene. We tiptoe right up to the edge of arch — especially in a final tableau both florid and artfully composed. And yet much of what Malkovich devises here feels fresh, contemporary and, to eyes and ears too rarely exposed to theater from Paris, perspicaciously French.
“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” lays out a veritable Venn diagram of love: The overlapping alliances and subterfuges draw in a dewy heiress (Agathe Le Bourdonnec), a naive cavalier (Mabo Kouyate) and, most crucially, a spotless noblewoman, portrayed by the ravishing Jina Djemba. It’s on behalf of Moulier’s drained and cold-eyed Merteuil that Valmont deflowers Le Bouronnec’s Cecile. And it’s for sport, initially, that he besieges Djemba’s Madame de Tourvel with a goal of marching her into bed.
His firm jaw set, this Valmont takes a believable pride in his skills in the boudoir: He crowds his quarry the way a cleanup hitter does home plate. It’s funny watching him grab the derriere of Lola Naymark’s Emilie, a noted courtesan, in a particularly explicit scene, just as it verges on anguish, seeing how he arouses Tourvel and in the process destroys both her and himself. (Her newfound bliss comes across magically, in a serene moment in which she sings to herself.)
Valmont’s own shame-enveloped disintegration is handled with graceful dexterity in a prolonged and well-staged sword fight with Kouyate’s Danceny. By this point in the evening —three hours that don’t feel quite that long — you will have tabulated quite a lengthy list of stage flourishes. So the application of blood-by-spray-can will not seem anything but completely organic.
The actors are wonderfully attuned to one another’s performances. That’s in part because they remain on the stage all the time — and not just in the wings, but sometimes on chairs in the middle of the stage. When your eyes are not fixed on the overhead translations, you’ll want to gaze now and then at the amused faces of actors taking in their colleagues’ work. Though it remains true to the Vicomte and Marquise’s twisted notions of l’amour, Malkovich’s “Liaisons” is not afraid to drop the mask and reveal its own passion for acting.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
adapted by Christopher Hampton from the novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. French translation by Fanette Barraya. Set, Pierre-Francois Limbosch; costumes, Mina Ly; lighting, Christophe Grelie; music, Nicolas Errera; fight direction, Francois Rostain. With Mabo Kouyate, Lola Naymark, Sophie Barjac, Agathe Le Bourdonnec, Pauline Moulene. About 3 hours. Through Sunday. Visit www.shakespearetheatre.org. Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Call 202-547-1122