By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Somebody at the Richardson Theatre Centre has been watching late-night Cinemax. Director Regan Adair's production of Christopher Hampton's Dangerous Liaisons throbs with passion, a three-hour make-out marathon replete with pretty babes in clingy lingerie, a courtesan who lets her lady lump double as a writing desk and a virgin who succumbs to the charms of the one humpy swain, played by the ridiculously handsome Mark Shum. He gets all the action. And man, there is plenty of action.
This feverish staging celebrates the perils and pleasures of submitting to sins of the flesh. Everyone's on the make in Liaisons, set in a plum-colored room that might be an upscale bordello. Ladies loll at their dressing tables powdering their alabaster cheeks and pouting their rouged lips, all for the attention of one man. One priapic man. Worth repeating: Shum, yum.
Based on Pierre Cholderlos de Laclos' 18th-century epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the play finds two despicable, sex-obsessed nobles--Mme. La Marquise de Merteuil (Meridith Morton) and Vicomte de Valmont (Shum)--making bets with each other about who can screw whom first. She wants him to seduce Cecile (Kayla Carlyle), the convent-bred 15-year-old daughter of a confidante (Cindy Beall). He regards that as an almost-too-easy conquest (and it turns out to be) and sets his sights on the lovely Mme. De Tourvel (Paige Reynolds), a young married woman with a reputation as the most pious and upstanding creature in town. His prize for bagging the elusive prey is a night in the sack with the Marquise herself. They are former lovers, and although she pretends to hate him, there's some mighty gushy chemistry there.
Back and forth they go, bedroom to salon to bedroom again, working their dark magic on their unsuspecting victims. Valmont makes sure Mme. De Tourvel finds out about some charitable contributions he's made (good works can be a powerful aphrodisiac), while at the same time coaching little Cecile for her first night of grown-up lovemaking. She thinks she's going to be coupling with her cute music teacher, Danceny (Brian Hunt), but of course it's Valmont who slips in instead.
What's so juicy about this show is the sustained illusion of continuous sex. Almost every scene takes place on a chaise longue or a rumpled bed as characters are found readying themselves for some hearty rogering or basking in a rosy post-coital glow. What they're really doing the whole time, of course, is merely talking about sex. And they do talk a blue streak. "I thought betrayal was your favorite word," says Valmont to his nemesis, the Marquise. "No, no," she answers. "Cruelty." Later she defines love as "something you use--not fall into like quicksand." The bitch is cold.
All trussed up in 18th-century bustles and bodices, the ladies of Dangerous Liaisons wouldn't be nearly so sexy as they are in Adair's production, which updates the action and the wardrobe to Paris in 1939. Now the Marquise swans around like a tough little Bette Davis in stylishly swishy spangles and furs (Adair also designed the costumes, set, lights and sound), and Valmont can stalk the babes like Cary Grant's evil twin in a white tie and crisp white dinner jacket. This cast is gorgeous, and they don't hold back in the smooching scenes. If the incidental music during scene changes were bad synthesizer licks instead of the chansons of Edith Piaf, Liaisons would look like a live version of a particularly artistic Vivid Video.
For RTC, until recently a community theater that too often played it safe and dull, this show is a giant step toward being taken seriously. Under the artistic leadership of Adair--he began working there last year but counts Liaisons as his first official show as producer--the theater now can earn some respect as a professional playhouse.
Strong actors such as Shum, Morton, Beall, Reynolds, Amanda Wright (as the saucy courtesan) and the others in the Liaisons ensemble achieve Adair's high standards for performance. Several of these actors succeed in showing different colors from their work in other companies, particularly Shum, who lately has been stuck in too many roles playing a fop or clown. He speaks the most dialogue in Liaisons and carries it off with cinematic economy and a real knack for the sexy pause. He also looks like a pretty good kisser.
The biggest knock against Liaisons is its length. Three hours makes for a long sit even for literary soft-core. Part of the problem lies in the cramped space and awkward design of a set that requires elaborate furniture shifting between each of the 18 scenes. Even the lilting interludes of Piaf don't do much to smooth over the frequent interruptions in the show's otherwise sizzling momentum. Then there are those awful herbal cigarettes the actors puff throughout both acts. The things stink, and the smoke wafts out into the house. But those are pretty minor complaints about a production that otherwise is smokin' hot.