French Letters

After watching the recent Los Angeles debacle - and numbed by the evidence of mankind's inability to coexist peacefully and democratically - a thought struck me: While the inner cities were screaming and burning, the plutocratic residents of Beverly Hills and Bel Air were probably resting their massaged bodies on ivory perches, their attitude indifferent and languid. History offers many comparisons, of course, none stronger than the French Revolution. For the very approach of the aristocracy during the Enlightenment was one of placid superiority - and as we know, the haves got a rude awakening in 1789, when the monarchy was toppled. And heads rolled.

This detached, insulated luxuriance maintained as the have-nots cry out and starve, are similarly brought to mind with playwright Christopher Hampton's sinuous examples of aristocratic cruelty and decadence during the late Eighteenth Century in the brilliant Dangerous Liaisons (Les Liaisons dangereuses), based on the 1782 epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

Despite erudite sociological and psychological opinions on the mass appeal of this play - three times made into a movie - its success differs only in style and wit from any contemporary titillation. Unadulterated (and adulterous) lust in all its permutations holds the fort, and without that crucial element, the acute remarks about the gender war, expressed through superb dialogue, actually go limp.

Hampton's work smacks of a masterpiece that threatens to turn dead-dull depending on the cast - which is the clear-cut problem with the Minorca Playhouse's current production. Apart from one performer - Arianne Nicole in the small part of a courtesan - none of the actors move, portray, or interact with any sensuality.

The plot holds up through the years, due to its ingenuity and relentless incidents of evil fun. A decadent upper-crust pair, the Marquise de Merteuil (a woman fond of orgasms fueled by revenge) and the Vicomte de Valmont (an amoral and skilled seducer) conspire for different reasons to destroy the reputations of a fifteen-year-old virgin, Cecile de Volanges, and a dedicatedly pious prude, Madame de Tourvel. Valmont's reward for accomplishing both seductions is a promised romp par excellence with Merteuil, a woman almost 100 percent dead inside but not without perverse appeal.

Through manipulations, letters, lies, semi-rapes and finally, unexpected affections, the pair achieve their goals - with tragic results. The message comes through loud and clear but unsettling: sexual obsession enslaves even the most unsuspecting, while love can change coming into crying.

If the production successfully communicated such dark eros, the script provides ample comedy, gasps, and even pathos. In the most famous filmed version, by Stephen Frears (versions were also filmed by Roger Vadim, in the early Sixties, and most recently by Milos Forman), reptilian John Malkovich battles and bites the surprisingly affecting Glenn Close. The duo repeatedly steamed up the screen, with the help of Uma Thurman as the young virgin (what a lusty woman she is!) and the heart-shape face of Michelle Pfeiffer breathing heavily but quietly. I sure wanted John's home phone number after all that.

But I can do without Andrew Noble's. His skill as an actor is never in question - it's his lack of passion and appeal that undoes him. He finds more wry humor and cruelty in Valmont than others who have played the part, and for that he should be commended. But as a master lover, he simply doesn't pan out. He shines, on the other hand, when compared to Beck's snarling, frigid, disconnected Merteuil, who, in this pivotal role, robotically recites lines devoid of feeling. Turning the audience cold with long monologues about desire, her delivery of positively artful prose contains about as much passion as Queen Elizabeth II's yearly address to both houses of Parliament.

Moving swiftly from boring to bad, Dunham emits phony wails, excessive laughter, and fear that comes across more like the uncontrolled shaking of Parkinson's disease. Helen Reece permits some flames to rise at the beginning, but then descends into chronic overacting, portraying sexual desire as a bout of stomachache leading to fulminant diarrhea, doubling her over from time to time.

The company Wholesale Antiques kindly provided authentic props and furnishings for the production, but Darrin Jones's surrounding set, with streaky painted panels and glinting cellophane, reminded me more of vaudeville than Versailles. Nobody takes credit for lights - a wise move, considering the inconsistent timing and lack of relation to actors who wander on-stage, activating (and deactivating) a variety of candle formations.

Supposedly stepping to the helm in the final days, director Gail Deschamps merits credit for a brave, last-ditch attempt. However, it's hard to forgive her for characters who speak upstage and sit down/stand up/move without purpose. Having been told at the start of the show by Jeanine Goodstein, the theater board's chairperson, and Ms. Deschamps (in an announcement to the audience) that they had "so many problems a week ago we wouldn't have let you in here," naturally one approaches what ensues with some trepidation. A kind move, as it turns out.

Unfortunately, I must end on a personal note. A principal member of the theater's management became vociferously offended when another audience member and I asked her and her friends to stop whispering during the show. I mention this mainly because, upon making this request, I was accused of planning a bad review as revenge. To ward off future inanity, one point needs to be clarified: I never judge actors by the crass actions of others. My respect for artists runs far too deep, and of those who boss them around, I am far too skeptical.

This review was earned by the production, Madam - not by you.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS by Christopher Hampton, from the novel by Pierre Choderlos De Laclos, directed by Gail Deschamps; with Ellen Beck, Beverly Bessoner, Blaine Dunham, Arianne Nicole, Andrew Noble, Elizabeth O'Leary, Carlos Orizondo, Helen Reece, Juan Sanchez, and Crystina Wyler. From the Florida Shakespeare Festival at The Minorca Playhouse, 232 Minorca Ave, Coral Gables, through May 17. Performances Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00 p.m, Wednesday at 2:00 p.m., and Sunday at 4:00 p.m. Tickets cost $18 to $22. Call 446-1116 for more information.

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