Sex, game theory and love triangles form a thematic ménage à trois in the St. Louis Shakespeare production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The Marquise de Merteuil (Lavonne Byers) and the Vicomte de Valmont (Matt Kahler) use seduction, betrayal and manipulation as entertainment in Christopher Hampton's adaptation of the epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. The book, published in 1782, was an indictment of the trivial lives of the aristocracy (whose power and privilege would end ten years later in the French Revolution), but those political concerns are barely visible in Hampton's play. Instead Hampton triangulates on the antics of Merteuil and Valmont, who are unexpectedly defeated by the uncontrollable emotion of love, embodied in the character of Madame de Tourvel (Julie Layton).
Byers' performance as Merteuil is exquisite. She wears her gorgeous costumes with complete assurance and delights in deliberate cruelty. "I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own," she explains to Valmont. In every detail, from the flick of a fan to a telling glance, Byers paints a compelling portrait of a woman driven by the lust for power.
But one virtuoso performance can't sustain the entire production. The passionate love affair between Valmont and Tourvel needs to be a vital force, but here it falls flat. Layton's Tourvel is more of a plot device than a character, and Kahler is obviously working hard in a role that should seem effortless. If the story is to succeed, Valmont must be convincingly honest with Tourvel and delightfully wicked with Merteuil. His conflicted love is the most complex emotion in the play, and Kahler simply misses the mark. Director Milt Zoth also undermines the Tourvel/Valmont relationship with repetitive blocking that becomes tiresome -- each time Valmont enters, Tourvel tries to escape and Valmont blocks her. They repeat this move so many times that it loses its impact. It's certainly an appropriate physicalization of their relationship, but instead of building the tension, it becomes merely predictable.
Zoth also creates unnecessary impediments to the audience's connection to the story through his mishandling of the necessary shifts in location. While careful thought was given to the choreography of the scene changes, the audience is jolted out of the world of the play by watching some of the actors exit scenes out of character. In one instance, after watching Valmont force himself on a very young girl (in a scene that achieves the show's highest Creep-O-Meter rating), the lights dim and then come back up for the scene change -- but first we watch the actress skip offstage, ruining the impact of the previous moment. The languid pace of the scene changes and the terribly slow curtain call (why move the furniture?) add unnecessary time to this already lengthy production.
The story is more widely known by its 1988 movie title: Dangerous Liaisons. In the movie version, Hampton managed to solve some of the problems that loom large in the stage adaptation. The movie presents the characters more clearly in their historical context. In the play, Merteuil and Valmont's outrageous activities seem to exist in a vacuum -- we never see the society that feeds on their behaviors. The movie also provides a clearer ending. Here, in a climactic scene reminiscent of George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Merteuil and Valmont declare war on each other. But then the action shifts to a duel between Valmont and one of the supporting characters -- with no explanation of how or why the fight is occurring. This confusing development is followed by the sudden deaths of Valmont and Tourvel, and Mertueil is left playing cards with two women friends. In one of the production's most compelling scenes, Donna Weinsting as Madame Rosemonde suddenly emerges as a woman who can best Mertueil -- but it all happens too suddenly.
If only the play and production were as precise as Byers is with her performance, this would be a grand experience. Instead, it's as superficial as the lives Laclos was criticizing.