The commanding Marquise de Merteuil and her ex-lover, the womanizing Vicomte de Valmont, aren't just thinkers—even though they're both highly intelligent, successful people. They're doers. And over the course of Center Stage's two-hour, 40-minute performance of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," they, well, do a lot of other people.
Set in Paris on the cusp of the French Revolution, Christopher Hampton's adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" follows Merteuil (Suzzanne Douglas) and Valmont (Brent Harris) as they wreak havoc on their unsuspecting friends, neighbors, and sexual partners. They aren't exactly a team and they aren't exactly rivals. They're something in between: former lovers with personal agendas and peculiar lingering interests in each other. They like sex. They like revenge. And sometimes they like each other. But mostly they like sex. And they use it however they can—in this case, to get revenge against an ex-lover of Merteuil's, who is now engaged to marry the young, recently uncloistered Cécile Volanges (played by Noelle Franco).
Together, our deceitful pair of elites conspire to ruin the innocent Cécile (with sex, as was the way back then) and embarrass her husband-to-be. Meanwhile, Valmont takes an independent interest in La Presidente de Tourvel (Gillian Williams), a married woman staying with his aunt, the Madame de Rosemonde (Elizabeth Shepard). Madame de Rosemonde, like so many other lucky-in-lavishness aristocrats, keeps a large house and property in the French countryside—you know, away from all those pesky people starving in the Parisian streets. Ornate chandeliers rise and fall from scene to scene, while shadows and sheer curtains cast a veil of mystery across sections of the stage—a luxurious contrast to Center Stage's North Calvert Street building which at the moment is in the midst of construction. The lobby is hung with plastic sheets, the bar is cordoned off, and the floors remain unfinished.
But inside the theater, rich tapestries abound and acid green and salacious red lighting intertwine to mirror the character's twisted notions of love and deceit. Most often adorned with minimal furnishings (a set of silver chairs here and a chaise lounge there) against a glass, window-pane wall, the stage looks as beautiful as the people invested in destroying each other's lives atop it.
The informed viewer understands that the French Revolution is coming as the year creeps toward 1789, but there's really no mention of the coming upheaval, and no break from the lavishness, until one of the final lines, "I daresay we may look forward to whatever the '90s may bring," which earns murmured laughter from aware audience members instead of carrying the levity it deserves. The production pays little attention to the idea that our main characters live in an entirely different France than the country's impoverished majority, so their frivolous and petty behavior carries no weight. There's nothing for audiences to compare this world to, making "Liaisons" a potentially striking, but ultimately disappointing, choice for a city like Baltimore, whose residents might resemble the homeless/starving/emotionally-charged French proletariat (or just, y'know, normal everyday people), rather than the imperial aristocrats with the time for sex games. The play, directed by Hana S. Sharif, is meant to expose the tensions between these groups and to reveal the kind of stupid, inconsequential frivolity that can accompany money and power, but with little other cultural context, the message fails to deliver.
Themes of consent and sexual assault, however, reflect a modern-day, nationwide attention to rape cases and the consequences that rarely result—looking at you, Brock Turner and every other slapped-on-the-wrist rapist out there. During the course of the show, Valmont "seduces" (and I use this term very broadly) multiple women through force, coercion, and manipulation. One woman figuratively swoons when he passes up the chance to "take" her. He must love me, she decides. He's such a good person, a changed man.
Actually, no. He just has a shred of human decency, and just barely. That's not exactly something deserving of praise.
The play itself isn't great for women, mostly because 18th century France wasn't great for women. "She certainly doesn't devote any undue energy to thinking," Valmont says. "Our sex has few enough advantages. You might as well make the most of what you have," Merteuil says later. And terms like "flower" or "flowered"—or even worse, "deflowered"—used once or twice during the play, are inherently gross terms to apply to women.
That said, Merteuil (Suzzanne Douglas), is the most compelling character in "Liaisons," and Douglas plays her with sharp elegance and underlying danger that's lacking in a lot of female characters, even modern ones. For a female character created in 1782, she is refreshingly complex. She wants independence, to never again take orders from a father or a husband or any other man who seeks to control her, yet she also possesses a well-hidden wish to be desired above all others. Mix one part Rebellious Streak and two parts Control Issues, add in just a dash of Sultry Succubus, and you've got a Marquise de Merteuil blend ready to tackle whatever comes at her. She's a cunning, but righteously angry product of her environment, and Douglas has a subtle way of keeping her human, and surprisingly likeable, as she interacts with Brent Harris' Valmont, whose sense of humor lends a unique, sardonic levity to the stage and somehow keeps audiences from realizing he's a total scumbag. The two give standout performances, while dynamic production choices create an air of danger without sacrificing any allure.
It's a story of sex, destruction and misplaced priorities—a story of a privileged upper class deciding to undress each other with their eyes instead of looking down to the people at their feet. The revolution is coming. Try not to lose your head.
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" runs through Dec. 23 at Center Stage. For more information, visit centerstage.org.