Antaeus Theatre Company's production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" demonstrates an unfortunate theatrical tendency to rely too heavily on sex, and too little on sexual chemistry to sell a show. The 1782 French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos has inspired countless ballet, operatic and theatrical performances, an Oscar-winning 1988 film, and 1999 cult classic "Cruel Intentions." But instead breathing life into a story that's been done to death, this year's revival prompts more scoffs and eye-rolls than adrenaline.
The play follows the Marquise de Merteuil, a beautiful, respected, sadistic seductress and her bet against the equally haughty and licentious Vicomte de Valmont, over whether or not he can entice Madame de Tourvel—an extremely virtuous and married woman. Should Valmont fail in his conquest, he is to bed the fifteen-year-old Cécile de Volanges and ruin her for her future-husband (Merteuil's ex-lover); and should he succeed, he is to finally earn another night with the Marquise herself.
Yet the presentation of this sexy, convoluted story is anything but alluring, with underwhelming performances and clichéd direction. Scott Ferrara's portrayal of the Vicomte is perfectly sophisticated, nonchalant and expressionless—but even so when emotions should have broken through Valmont's façade. Liza Seneca's Tourvel is boring and unlikable, prompting the question of why anyone would fall for someone so flimsy and mousy at all; and Elyse Mirto's flashing eyes and graceful snark make the Marquise de Merteuil a favorable character, but still too predictable for such a volatile story. USC alumna Ellis Greer's brief performance is definitely memorable, mostly because of her hilarious, "secretarial" performance, but also maybe due to her usually being half-naked.
The ultimate flaw in the direction of the play is that it was formulaic and unclear. Robin Larsen's approach to gender and sexuality handles themes like rape, control and aggression clumsily, without actually taking a stance on any of them. Granted, as a modern audience it's difficult to like a man who assaults a teenager, or a woman who manipulates those she calls friends, but that's the point of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses": to explore all the horrors, nuances, hypocrisies and generosities in human nature, and stronger direction might make some characters more appealing.
The highlight of Yee Run Nam's scenic design is his cool color schemes and geometric floors, which mirror the sophistication and detachment the play exudes. Jocelyn Hublau Parker's costume design is confusing, because while it captures all the salient basics of each character (there certainly was cleverness in Merteuil's black ensemble and gold necklace matching Valmont's suit and the design of his waistcoat), it is difficult to see what time period the play is set in. The 21st century? The 1950's? The roaring 20's? Leigh Allen's lighting design and Jeff Polunas' costume design don't clear anything up with punk-style projections and heavy metal tones intermittently splotched through the play.
All in all, the play's sharp humor, intricate plot, and the value it places on reputation make it a fun way to spend an evening. Just watch the movie first, and notice how these complex characters tend to make you root for everyone and no one at the same time, while this production alone makes it difficult to root for anyone at all.
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" is playing in the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center at 110 E. Broadway, Glendale until December 10th, 2017. For tickets, call (818) 506-1983 or visit www.antaeus.org.