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Cruel Intentions

Daniel McDonald and Chandler Vinton play familiar characters in Quartett, Heiner Müller's dramatic reverie based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Chandler Vinton and Daniel McDonald
in Quartett
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The world can't ever seem to get enough of the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. These thrillingly sexy, deeply evil characters were created by the French writer Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803) for his epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and that work has served as the basis for a slew of adaptations. There was the 1960, modern-dress French film Les Liaisons Dangereuses; Christopher Hampton's stage adaptation of the Laclos novel, seen on Broadway in 1987, starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan; the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons, based on the play, with John Malkovich and Glenn Close; the 1989 film Valmont, another treatment of the same story and characters, played in this case by Colin Firth and Annette Bening; and the 1999 film Cruel Intentions, which reimagined Valmont and Merteuil for Generation "Y" in the persons of Ryan Phillipe and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Les Liaisons Dangereuses was even turned into a contemporary opera that took full advantage of the medium to express the characters' sexual intensity and the bizarre turns of the plot.

Now, Quartett, a "dramatic reverie" by German playwright Heiner Müller (1929-1995) based on the Laclos novel, is coming to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for six performances only, June 27-July 1, in a production directed by Gabriella Maione. The mouth-watering roles of Valmont and Merteuil will be played to the hilt (the only way to play them!) in this production by Daniel McDonald and Chandler Vinton, who were delighted to talk to TheaterMania about the continuing fascination of these characters.


THEATERMANIA: So, what is it about Valmont and Merteuil that continues to draw the attention of artists and audiences?

DANIEL: Well, they're absolutely wicked. They're Machiavellian. And I think they're what everyone really wants to be.

CHANDLER: Exactly--to be that cruel.

DANIEL: So people get to live vicariously through the characters. It's cruelty on every level: sexual, emotional, physical.

TM: It's oddly compelling that the characters find so much enjoyment in their own awful behavior.

DANIEL: The idea is that, when you have so much money, when you have everything you ever need, you have to create your own games, your own journey...

CHANDLER: ...your own entertainment.

DANIEL: And these people get more and more twisted as they go along.

CHANDLER: Because they've got nothing else to do!

TM: Would you say the characters are believable in a real-life sense?

DANIEL: Oh, yeah. There are people like this.

CHANDLER: People manipulate other people all the time for their own amusement.

DANIEL: There's a huge S&M culture in New York City. There are clubs. I'm sure you've been to many of them! I think this play touches a nerve.

TM: Is it harder to accept that a woman, as compared to a man, would act in such a cold, calculated, evil way?

CHANDLER: I wouldn't say so. I think it's easier for a man to get away with it, to behave like that and still be considered a decent human being, whereas a woman would be more readily condemned for it.

TM: I understand that Quartett is a sort of a free-form adaptation of the familiar story.

CHANDLER: Yes. The way I've wrapped my brain around is that Heiner Müller takes these two characters who do these sick and twisted things and removes them from the context within which it all happens. So you don't have any reasons to explain away their behavior; you're just left with their actions, and that really makes you think about why they do what they do. I think Müller tried to heighten the alienation effect of the play.

TM: I've read that he was a disciple of Brecht, so it makes sense that he would take that approach.

DANIEL: Yes. But, also, Müller was personally touched by the Holocaust. So when he's writing these cruel, lascivious characters who lash out at each other, he's drawing parallels to his experience of the cruelty of humanity in general.

Daniel McDonald, Chandler Vinton,
and Suzanne Packer in Quartett
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
TM: What is the general tone of the play and the production?

DANIEL: Well, it's not musical comedy! It's very dark. It's kind of like being in a Dali painting on acid. Everything melts, time stops and warps. The production is very lavish.

TM: You have a terrific design team: sets by Jean Paul Chambas, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lights by Robert Wierzel.

DANIEL: It looks gorgeous. Visually, the show is stunning. And the time warp that happens with the music and the pacing all fits into this deconstructed script that we have to work with. It's not a linear storyline; it's disjointed and surreal.

TM: Is there any humor in the play?

DANIEL: Of course, there's humor--otherwise, we'd kill ourselves! The play has a very "current" feel. What drew me to it was the chance to stretch in a lot of ways. And I think it's going to bend the audience's perceptions of themselves.

CHANDLER: As soon as I heard about the play, I got myself an audition. I've always thought that Merteuil is an amazing character. But I didn't actually get a script until callbacks, so I had no clear picture of what I was stepping into.

DANIEL: It's a very exciting production. And I do show nipple in it.

CHANDLER: I do, too--if that's any incentive.

DANIEL: Yeah, but I do it voluntarily!


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