Nobody looked less like a king on the morning of Jan. 21, 1793 than France’s Louis XVI, charged with no fewer than 33 high crimes and misdemeanors. Haggard and hobbled by a pesky case of the flu, he was guillotined that day amid a wildly failed economy, a food crisis fueled by the worst weather in decades and the people’s uncontrollable anger over his predecessors’ let-’em-eat-cake lifestyles.
The French Revolution was well under way, fueled by a raging discontent brewing since the mid-1770s. The fledgling republic would execute 40,000 suspected insurrectionists in 1793-94 alone.
That little history lesson might seem out of place for a review of Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons), New Fortune Theatre Company’s current turn — but it has a bearing on the Christopher Hampton play about the knife-in-the-back jealousies and well-heeled romantic indifference in the royal court of 1780s France. Hampton won a screenplay Oscar in 1989 for his movie script, and he’s translated at least two Yasmina Reza plays from French to English — but here, and to a fault, he’s far more a translator than a writer.
Meanwhile, although the actors can’t perform their way out of a mishandled script, they can salvage your evening with some of the finest chemistry you’ll find.
Playwrights from Aeschylus to Anouilh have registered their disgust behind their characters’ sexual misdeeds — and few settings are more compelling than royal France, with its social and political classism peppering its people’s frantic search for a national mien. For Hampton, two such figures are the Vicomte Sebastien de Valmont, whose quick-sell, bum’s-rush escapades (chiefly with the married Tourvel) border on the sociopathic, and the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil, a poor man’s Lady Macbeth preying on her romantic rival Cecile de Volanges (who doesn’t know her own strength until it’s almost too late) and that of the piano teacher Cecile secretly loves.
As a team, ex-lovers Sebastien and Isabelle are a force to be reckoned with, and you’ll seriously accede to their predilections and peccadillos lest you precede them in death or worse — but as push comes to shove between the conspirators turned adversaries, Isabelle will emerge from “the game” with a decidedly lame victory.
There aren’t any characters here, at least not in the sense that they find their development from sources outside their own lives.
This play is loopy with the lushness of bearing you might expect from a nation mastering the art of the brave face — but inexplicably, nothing betrays that face aside from Hampton’s say-so. The people’s simmering discontent; the politics that fueled the formation of the Legislative Assembly; the interminable wait for Louis’ male heir; the decimated wheat crops following a series of frigid winters: Hampton painstakingly ignores these developments and the rest of the robust history that could help explain his characters, leaving us with only the two principals’ pathologies. Their words, however cadenced and pretty, ring hollow amid Hampton’s refusal to integrate the whole of French life into his story.
And if he won’t color this pair’s decadence with anything beyond illicit ceremony behind closed doors, then why did he bother setting the play in France, particularly in that consummately volatile era? Sebastien and Isabelle could be anyone and everyone, as they hardly corner humanity’s colossal depravity market — hence, their believability, and that of the people around them, takes a major hit.
But thanks in no small measure to the principals, there’s an abundance of chemistry at work. Director Richard Baird’s Sebastien is a gleeful fellow conspirator, and later a reluctant foil, amid Isabelle’s effrontery as portrayed by Jessica John — the two acclaimed locals (as does co-helmer Kaitlin O’Neal) revel in Hampton’s lyricism and modulations while never once abandoning the appropriate histrionics.
Connor Sullivan is a foppishly funny la Chevalier Danceny, piano instructor to Gentry Roth’s baffled Cecile, while Amanda Schaar’s Tourvel features a nice flush of exasperation beneath a rock-solid stare of virtuousness. Everybody else is good in the pursuit of their characters’ sense of duty — watch the officiousness they exude during the scene changes, and you’ll get the idea.
J. Tyler Jones succeeds as fight choreographer in the foilplay at the end — he’s got Sebastien’s footwork looking every bit as substandard as it is.
Guilio Perrone’s set is a mile wide and a mile high, leaving all that room for Howard Schmitt’s costume parade (dig all the sartorial detail, from the figurines on Sebastien’s knee-highs to the exhaustive pleats on the gowns). Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound and AJ Paulin’s lights are as intent on the show as the characters.
But that’s the thing. There aren’t any characters here, at least not in the sense that they find their development from sources outside their own lives. All that great portrayal deserves all those great points of reference that the royal court has consigned to history — with this show, we get an executive summary as the nearby encyclopedias lie fallow.
Martin Jones Westlin’s e-mail address is [email protected]
This review is based on the matinee performance of Jan. 16. Les Liaisons dangereuses runs through Jan. 28 at San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Space venue, 79 Horton Plaza downtown. $20-$47. 619-544-1000, newfortunetheatre.com.