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Mathew Gray & Christiaan Koop in
Dangerous Liaisons
(Photo © David Kassan)
There's a reasonable amount of talent onstage in , Abingdon Theater's production of a new adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos' 18th century novel of aristocratic caddishness and romantic deceit. The novel has already famously served as the basis for a Christopher Hampton play that prompted a movie version starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich, not to mention the Milos Forman film Valmont, the Sarah Michelle Gellar-Ryan Philippe-Reese Witherspoon flick Cruel Intentions, and a stage production by avant-garde icon Heiner Muller.

The Abingdon cast is young and so offers energy and dauntlessness along with immaturity and charming, awkward enthusiasm. The most mature effort involved is that of Bradley Reichek, co-playwright along with Dan Maccarone (who also directs), in bringing a deep understanding to the material. Reichek is a doctoral student of French and Italian libertine literature. His reasons for a new adaptation surely involve academic concerns that exceed my expertise or interest, but his program notes emphasize the fact that his version is loyal to the epistolary format of the book. Ironically, the most effective scenes here dramatize the source material in ways that do not involve the writing of letters.

It's an interesting strategy to stress the modern nihilism of the book's tone by not entirely updating the setting but, instead, by mixing old and new approaches to language, costuming, etc. Here, lines that sound as if they were directly translated from the original come right before or right after exchanges like "If anyone needs to get laid, it's you." This kind of thing can perhaps be effective if done judiciously, but the Reichek-Maccarone adpatation arbitrarily juxtaposes ideas and tones in a way that jars, rather than adding to the work's impact. The story of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is pretty damned good as it is; if you're going to deconstruct it or toy with it dramaturgically or directorially, you'd better have thought out your approach very clearly.

While the Abingdon production is mostly about a bunch of cute twentysomethings vamping through yet another serving of cruel intentions, it does feature some decent acting turns. Moria Stone does a very good job of being sexy, cold, and sophisticated as Sarah Merteuil, the mastermind behind the destruction that plays out in the script. Her voice is deep and her control of elaborate phrases is sometimes remarkable but, in playing a woman who restrains her own floodtides of emotion, she offers too much restraint and not enough emotion (although her skin flushes at appropriate times). Stone shows potential for doing excellent work once she masters the difficult coordination of voice, movement, and diction required by such a challenging role. She should be encouraged.

As Valmont, the sexual predator who is often mistaken as the prime mover of the plot, Matthew Gray goes for all-out camp in the first act. Presumably, he is following the lead of the script and the director, but his approach to the role makes it exceedingly difficult for us to take seriously the character's depths of anguish later in the evening. Sexy coquettishness is supplied by Carrie Johnson as Cecile Volanges, Valmont's young conquest; but all of the scenes involving Stu Luth's Danceny end up feeling amateurish because the young actor overplays, cartoonishly exhibiting a coltish anxiety that doesn't seem to come from within. As Melissa Tourvel, Christiaan Koop is beautiful and vulnerable but hampered by the failure of the script to attend to her seduction by Valmont. That said, her scene in an asylum late in the show is as impressively and courageously acted as it is well written. This disturbing sequence dramatizes the outcome of Valmont's immorality with a gravity that exceeds other adaptations.

As is common with low-budget productions of this ilk, Dangerous Liaisons was victimized at the performance I attended by multiple lighting miscues and noise from outside the theater (along with noise from a show downstairs). It's a testament to those involved that, whatever the flaws of the production, they transcended difficult circumstances to produce some riveting moments.

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