Although "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" is set in pre-revolutionary France, its tales of sexual duplicity and excess are as well aimed at today's audiences as they would have been at the idly and decadently rich of an earlier time. Christopher Hampton's adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 book was an international hit several seasons ago, followed by an even more successful movie version, "Dangerous Liaisons."
Stylistically, the play is delicate, like a porcelain bibelot or those antique French chairs that look as if they will break if anyone sits on them. The Washington Shakespeare Company's production, which opened recently, is more like that new furniture made out of crates, heavy and graceless and without much charm.
The two central characters are -- or seem to be -- cynicism personified. La Marquise de Merteuil (Megan Morgan) and Le Vicomte de Valmont (Brian Hemmingsen) are friends, equally devoted to the machinations of romance, advising each other in a game of seduction in which the harder the challenge, the more the fun. Feelings are to be laughed at and disregarded; the power of having won over reluctant quarry and deciding when to discard them is their true aphrodisiac.
La Marquise has a proto-feminist motive for her attitude, reasoning that it's take or be taken, use or be used, and women have so few resources with which to assert power that they have to go with what they've got -- sex. Le Vicomte is as ruthless, but shows signs of weakening, if only because of his unfulfilled yearnings for his partner in manipulation. Around this duo spin a handful of suitors and suitees, pretend best friends and beloved relations, most of them in one way or another duplicitous.
Hemmingsen is miscast as Valmont, encumbered by his considerable size and a lack of physical and vocal finesse. Morgan, who has a clear and pleasant voice, here takes on a single tone of archness and does not vary from it. She wears a permanent smirk, which becomes a tedious mono-trait, and the sexual fencing between the two of them begins to take on the aura of a mating dance between a whale and a shark.
The lesser characters fare better, notably Krissy Darnell as the 15-year-old object of Valmont's temporary lust, and Nanna Ingvarsson as the slightly older target of his more lasting interest. Jeff Lofton has an attractive straightforwardness as Danceny, and Nancy Robinette gives admirable dimension to the part of Darnell's mother.
Why director Jim Stone chose to cast a male (Richard Mancini) in the part of Valmont's aging aunt and dress him in unconvincing drag is a question far too profound for me to discover. If Stone is suggesting that women start looking like men as they age, then he is just being rude. In any case, it is very disconcerting to watch Auntie's 5 o'clock shadow lengthen as the evening wears on.
James Kronzer has draped muslin high and low to create a fanciful and effective set, an inventive use of limited resources. Having the stuff on the ground may not endear Kronzer to the actors, however, as it is easy to trip on.
The company, formed by a corps of experienced Washington actors, performs in the Black Box Theatre on the Takoma Park campus of Montgomery College.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Jim Stone, set by James Kronzer, lighting by Bart Whiteman, costumes by Nan Howard and Irene Eisenhardt, fight direction by Brad Waller. With Megan Morgan, Nancy Robinette, Krissy Darnell, Tim Carlin, Brian Hemmingsen, Christopher Henley, R.M. Mancini, Nanna Ingvarsson, Valerie Bouleau, Jeff Lofton, Resa Ritzert. Through Aug. 5.