The Vienna Theatre Company has begun 2003 on a bold note, daring audiences to enjoy a play that inhabits some strange dimension between comedy and drama and has characters who are mostly unlikable. All they do is talk and scheme. Oh, and make love.

That last part might be appealing, except that these predators get physical the way a shark might eat you: nothing personal, no feelings involved, just robotically satisfying an instinctive hunger, and sorry if it leaves you in pieces.

This is Christopher Hampton's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" ("Dangerous Liaisons"), the 1987 play based on the 18th-century novel by Pierre Ambroise Francois Choderlos de Laclos. Laclos had intense contempt for the decaying aristocracy wiling away the hours in their salons and boudoirs just before the French Revolution.

The Hampton version of the tale seems more celebratory of the scheming scoundrels, reveling in elaborate wordplay, but this production doesn't seem to take much of a stand either way. It is a competent rendering of the literature, and the Vienna Theatre Company should be commended for its ambition with such difficult material, but the effort ultimately lacks a compelling spark at its core.

The setting is 1780s Paris and the surrounding countryside. The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, former lovers and current co-conspirators, view defiling the innocent and breaking hearts as a blood sport.

The Marquise dares Valmont to seduce the virginal young Cecile de Volanges, who is to marry the Marquise's former lover. Angry that her paramour abandoned her for the inge{acute}nue, the Marquise charges Valmont with getting her into bed before her future husband can.

Valmont accepts the assignment but simultaneously becomes intrigued by the virtuous and married Madame de Tourvel. Anything he touches is corrupted, but this time there may also be consequences for the Vicomte, as the two connivers see their machinations spiral out of control, with tragedy the unavoidable consequence.

In Vienna's production, director Angie Anderson succeeds in keeping her 11-member cast on a lively pace, nimbly stepping through the unrelenting banter that stretches for almost three hours.

Unfortunately only a few of the actors have fleshed out characters beyond the dialogue in their scripts. They have not rallied around a shared vision and attempted to develop it.

For instance, it might be fun to exaggerate some facets of the characters' personas, even go over the top, but the spark of imagination and the sense of fun for that seem mostly lacking. So, despite the energy expended onstage, the production often plods where it might otherwise soar.

Shannon Benton, as the Marquise de Merteuil, and Cassie Lee, as Madame de Tourvel, do succeed, however, with rich and multifaceted portrayals.

Benton charmingly exudes cold poise, elegance and power. Lee begins as a strong woman who uses a perceived air of vulnerability to her advantage, only to dissolve into grief and guilt.

Ann Colly is an exuberant Cecile, a vibrant young woman with an air of detached irony that allows her to enjoy her fling eventually with the old rogue Valmont.

Ah, Valmont, a role ripe with potential that Todd Huse does not fully exploit. Instead of radiating reptilian charisma and languid decadence, Huse plays Valmont in a matter-of-fact although slightly dour way, and with a constant mechanical, irritating laugh substituting for charm.

Steve Ross's set design effectively meets the challenge of creating numerous sumptuous surroundings with a variety of brightly colored backdrops and creative reshuffling of furniture and props.

Suzanne Maloney's costumes are elegant and colorful, but little attempt is made to re-create the overdone makeup and hair of the period, and that dulls some of the show's luster.

The theater company has posted warnings of the adult nature of the material, but it's generally no worse than the average TV sitcom these days.

"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" will be performed at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday at the Vienna Community Center, 120 Cherry St. SE. For tickets, call 703-255-6360 or visit the center.