Cattiness isn't a quality exclusive to women in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," the Christopher Hampton period play based on a 1782 French novel and made famous by the 1988 film adaptation starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich. The characters played by Close and Malkovich pride themselves on their wit and cunning. Bored with their lives of leisure, they pass the time playing games with others'. If those they toy with get hurt, all the better.
Both use their sexuality to their advantage, but really, with one as manipulative as the other, their sexes don't matter. This is one way to look at what the Actors' Theatre of Washington is calling its "all male, but not necessarily gay" production of Hampton's play.
Instead of performing in drag, the female characters are dressed like the males -- Greg Stevens outfits all the actors in black pants and white shirts, though in a variety of styles -- with only modest accents such as jewelry or a headband to distinguish them.
Of course, ATW is also dedicated to gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender theater, and in a playbill note Artistic Director Jeffrey Johnson acknowledges that the company's traditional ticket holders may want to interpret the staging differently. Realistically, though, with the fair amount of nudity and frank sexual situations here -- no one under 18 will be admitted -- it's unlikely the audience will keep regarding any of the actors as women for very long.
However you see the female characters, their essences come through in this fine if, at 2 hours and 45 minutes, patience-testing production. Johnson plays the alpha female, the Marquise de Merteuil. Christopher Henley is her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont. Among the innocents they seek to ruin for sport are Cecile (a perfectly vacant Brent Stansell), a naive teenager who until recently lived in a convent, and Marie de Tourvel (Peter Klaus), a married woman well known for her upstanding morals. Both are seduced by the challenge-seeking Valmont, which delights and horrifies Merteuil. Soon, the partners in complicity seek to take down each other.
ATW is staging "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" at the Source Theatre, though the production was tailored for Busboys and Poets, a 14th Street venue that's under construction and will not have a backstage area. All the actors, therefore, when not in a scene, sit or stand at the periphery of Stevens's elegant parlor set -- a red chaise longue on an Oriental rug with three colorful gold-framed screens in the background. Director Lee Mikeska Gardner has offstage characters react when their names come up in conversation, an approach that adds theatricality but is also a bit distracting throughout this dialogue-heavy work.
The cast is all strong, with Henley and Johnson most fetching in their characters' wretchedness, their manipulative intentions obvious in each actor's mannerisms without descending into campy overtures of evil. Restraint isn't always shown in the rest of the production, particularly Johnson's sound design, which is partial to loud thunder and a woman's moans. The latter may be the final reminder that there are supposed to be women on stage, but the overall smoothness with which ATW presents "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" proves that such a detail doesn't really matter.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Set and costumes, Greg Stevens; lighting, Marianne Meadows. Approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Sept. 4 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com/atw.