LIVE FROM BARNES & NOBLE: JOSH GROBAN, DENÉE BARTON, DAVE MALLOY, AND CAST MEMBERS FROM THE GREAT COMET…
Who: Josh Groban, Denée Barton, Dave Malloy, Steve Suskin, more
What: Live performance and book signing
Where: Barnes & Noble, 150 East 86th St. at Lexington Ave., 212-369-2180
When: Friday, January 13, free, 4:00 (priority seating with book purchase at B&N Upper East Side starting at 9:00 am)
Why: Steven Suskin’s new book, The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway (Sterling, November 2016, $40), takes theater fans behind the scenes of the remarkable story of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, an electropop opera based on a seventy-page section of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace that began life in the eighty-seven-seat house Ars Nova in 2012, only to find itself a smash hit at the 1,200-capacity Imperial on Broadway four years later. The book includes a five-song CD (with three songs from the off-Broadway production and two from the Broadway edition) as well as a foreword by Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis. On January 13 at 4:00, Suskin will be at the Upper East Side B&N on Eighty-Sixth St. to sign copies of the book, joined by Denée Barton, who is exquisite as Natasha, Josh Groban, who has earned raves as Pierre, and Dave Malloy, the show’s creator, composer, librettist, orchestrator, music director, and original Pierre. The B&N event will include live performances along with a signing; the participants will only be signing copies of the new book that were purchased that day, starting at 9:00, at the store, which also gets you priority seating; no other memorabilia will be autographed.
Circle in the Square Theatre
1633 Broadway at 50th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 25, $89-$159
In the fall of 2010, Primary Stages premiered the a cappella In Transit at 59E59, nabbing a special Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble and earning a nomination for Outstanding Musical, losing out to a little show called The Book of Mormon. A new production of In Transit has now pulled into the Circle in the Square, where it has its ups and downs, stops and starts, just like the New York City subway system. The show is set in an imaginary train station watched over by Boxman (Chesney Snow and Steven “HeaveN” Cantor alternate in the role), a subway beatboxer with a speaker and a microphone who serves as a kind of Greek chorus / narrator, dishing out advice as well as beats. “Really, how you gonna get where you’re going if you don’t know how to be where you are?” he asks. Over the course of ninety-five minutes and sixteen a cappella songs — there are no instruments used; every sound is made by the human voice — various straphangers take stock of their lives while in transit or at their destinations, their stories rooted in genre clichés that seem tailored more for tourists than New Yorkers yet delivered with energetic charm by a very likable cast. Jane (Margo Seibert) is working as a temp while going on auditions, looking for her big acting break. At a bar, she hits it off with Nate (James Snyder), who recently lost his job because of a major “reply all” faux pas. Nate’s sister, Ali (Erin Mackey), has just taken up running to deal with her breakup with Dave (David Abeles), the doctor she moved cross-country to join in New York. Trent (Justin Guarini) and Steven (usually played by Telly Leung, but we saw understudy Arbender Robinson), are planning their wedding, but Steven insists that Trent must stop hiding his sexual orientation from his Bible-thumping mother (Moya Angela) in Texas. The excellent cast also includes Gerianne Pérez, Mariand Torres, and Nicholas Ward; all of the actors except for Snow play multiple roles.
Directed and choreographed by three-time Tony winner Kathleen Marshall (The Pajama Game, Anything Goes), In Transit works best when it is taking place in the subway, on Donyale Werle’s set, which features familiar train seats and platform and a clever conveyer belt that suggests subway car movement while the characters share classic subway thoughts: “I should’ve hailed a cab.” “This aroma’s unique.” “Is that lady pregnant or fat?” “Crap, why is the seat all wet where I just sat?” “Did I just miss my stop?” When the location moves to Texas, to a bar, and to Jane’s office, it’s like someone pulled the emergency cord on the train and we did indeed get off on the wrong stop. The cast displays an endearing chemistry not only in the major storylines but in the playful subplot involving Trent and angry token clerk Althea (Angela). Overseeing it all like a mythological god is Snow, the only actor from the original 2010 production; the sounds that come out of his mouth are hard to believe, like a full band accompanying the rest of the cast’s lovely, soaring voices. The problem, however, is in the writing, which does not feel adult enough, unwilling to take any real risks, so it is not surprising that the book, music, and lyrics were written by a quartet — Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth — whose resumes include Frozen, Finding Nemo: The Musical, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie & Other Story Books, and the NYC Children’s Theatre’s Dear Albert Einstein. It could have been a much-loved express train, but instead it’s merely a likable local.
220 West 48th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 19, $50-$187
Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical A Bronx Tale started life as a one-man show in 1989, telling the story of a young Belmont boy, Calogero, who witnesses a murder involving local crime boss Sonny but keeps his mouth shut, earning Sonny’s respect and ultimately a job with the mobster, which deeply angers his bus driver father, Lorenzo. Four years later, the film version arrived, directed by Robert De Niro and starring Palminteri — whose real first name is Calogero — as Sonny, Francis Capra and Lilo Brancato Jr. as Calogero (at different ages), and De Niro as Lorenzo. The show made it to Broadway in the fall of 2007, directed by four-time Tony winner Jerry Zaks. At De Niro’s urging, A Bronx Tale has now been turned into a Broadway musical at the Longacre, codirected by Zaks and De Niro, who should have left well enough alone. The best parts of the new show, and they’re very, very good, are the spoken dialogue scenes, which book writer Palminteri has expanded from his solo show, making excellent use of the expanded cast. However, the musical numbers, by a pair of Disney veterans, bring the show to a screeching halt, filled with syrupy sentimentality that neither enhances the development of the characters nor forwards the plot, instead restating what the audience already knows and feels. Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, who have previously collaborated on The Little Mermaid, Sister Act, and Leap of Faith, should have known better, too.
Tony-winning designer Beowulf Boritt (Act One, The Scottsboro Boys) has created a cool, hip set, centered by a street sign that turns from Belmont Ave., where the Italians live, to Webster Ave., a black community, with storefronts and tenement buildings that also rotate to indicate a change of location; the two neighborhoods are close to each other but couldn’t be further apart. The show is narrated by Bobby Conte Thornton, in his engaging Broadway debut, as the adult Calogero, who looks back at the choices he and his father made; Hudson Loverro plays the nine-year-old Calogero, nicknamed “C” by Sonny. Tony nominee Nick Cordero (Bullets over Broadway, Rock of Ages) is impressive as Sonny, forming an intimate chemistry with both Calogeros while battling against Lorenzo (a rock-solid Richard H. Blake of Jersey Boys). The real stand-out is Ariana DeBose (Hamilton, Pippin) as Jane, an African American high school student whom Calogero is interested in, which threatens to set off a local race war. She has a mesmerizing stage presence, with the voice and moves to match. But the real problem is the music, a mix of doo-wop and ballads, and Sergio Trujillo’s (On Your Feet, Jersey Boys) choreography, which together range back and forth between pale imitations of Grease and West Side Story. The film featured classic songs by the Impressions, John Coltrane, the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Dion, the Moonglows, and others, helping set the proper mood; in the musical, the orchestrations by three-time Tony winner Doug Besterman (Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Producers) are drab and dull, unfortunately matching the music and lyrics, sapping the energy out of the show. If one more song focused on the word “heart,” I might have had to run out of the theater screaming. Without the production numbers, A Bronx Tale is compelling and intriguing; with them, it embodies the critical advice Lorenzo gives young Calogero: “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent. Promise me you won’t waste yours.”
249 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 3, $59-$189
Hamilton, watch out; there’s a new historical musical in town, dueling it out for the designation of best show on Broadway. In his epic 1869 novel War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy wrote of his protagonist, Count Pierre Bezukhov, “At the entrance to the Arbat Square an immense expanse of dark starry sky presented itself to his eyes. Almost in the center of it, above the Prechistenka Boulevard, surrounded and sprinkled on all sides by stars but distinguished from them all by its nearness to the earth, its white light, and its long uplifted tail, shone the enormous and brilliant comet of 1812 — the comet which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world.” And there are all kinds of woes indeed in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy’s smashing electro-pop opera adapted from a 70-page section of Tolstoy’s classic tale, which has been magnificently transported to Broadway’s reconfigured Imperial Theatre. The little show that could began life in 2012 at 87-seat Ars Nova, where it ran for 39 performances. The next year it moved to the 199-seat tented Kazino cabaret in the Meatpacking District, and now it’s on Broadway, appropriately enough at the 1,200-seat Imperial, which set designer Mimi Lien (John, An Octoroon) has turned into an immersive wonderland, with ramps snaking from the stage throughout the theater and the audience seated in conventional chairs in the balcony and tavern-like chairs on the stage as well as in slightly sunken pits. The large cast of more than 40 actors and musicians emerge from every nook and cranny, every corner, even occasionally taking a seat right next to you and clinking glasses for a toast. You will be served a potato pierogi early on, and later a percussive egg to shake during some merriment. You might even get a page of War and Peace dropped in your lap. During intermission, you can roam anywhere, getting up close and personal with hundreds of paintings (many of Napoleon) that line the walls.
Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Natasha is a delightfully soapy story of love and betrayal in 1812 Moscow. The fabulous prologue introduces the major characters: brave Prince Andrey Bolkonsky (Nicholas Belton), who is away at war; “bewildered and awkward” Pierre Bezukhov (Josh Groban), a drunken cuckold who has given up on life; “young” Countess Natalya Ilyinichna Rostova, Andrey’s beautiful fiancée, called Natasha (Denée Benton); “hot” Anatole Kuragin (Lucas Steele), an immoral ladies’ man; “slut” Countess Hélène Bezukhova (Amber Gray), Anatole’s devious sister, who is married to Pierre; “good” Sofia Alexandrovna Rostova, Natasha’s trusted cousin, who goes by Sonya (Brittain Ashford); “crazy” Old Prince Bolkonsky (Belton), Andrey’s doddering father; “plain” Princess Mary Bolkonskaya (Gelsey Bell), Andrey’s sister; “old school” Marya Dmitryevna Akhrosimova (Grace McLean), Natasha’s godmother; “fierce” Fedya Dolokhov (Nick Choksi), a good friend of Anatole’s; and “fun” Balaga (Paul Pinto), a carefree troika driver. Don’t worry if it all doesn’t soak in immediately; there is a family tree in the program, which the cast suggests you refer to when necessary. After the prologue, a chorus declares, “Oh Pierre! Our merry feasting crank / Our most dear, most kind, most smart and eccentric / A warm-hearted Russian of the old school / His purse is always empty / Cuz it’s open to all / Oh Pierre / Just one of a hundred sad old men / Living out their final days in Moscow.” The downtrodden Pierre readily admits, “I never thought that I’d end up like this / I used to be better.” Attending an opera, Natasha sees Anatole and is instantly smitten with him, so the swaggering Anatole swoops down on her, soon proclaiming his undying love. Scandal ensues as there’s a duel, a costume ball, and various deceptions, leading to a deeply intimate and emotional conclusion.
“We are speaking of most ordinary things,” Anatole says at one point, but there is nothing ordinary about Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Director Rachel Chavkin (The Royale, Small Mouth Sounds), who has been with the show from the start, finds endlessly inventive ways to bring this epic to life, as characters weave in and among the audience, the ensemble is always on the move, and the pace never lags for even a second. As Bradley King’s lights go down after one number, anticipation builds as to where the next song will begin. Choreographer Sam Pinkleton (Machinal, Significant Other) makes full use of the space, further involving the audience in the cast’s movements. The gorgeous costumes, by Paloma Young (Peter and the Starcatcher), range from elegant and fashionable to sexy and steam-punk. The ensemble is uniformly outstanding, from the wandering accordion players to the opera dancers (Reed Luplau and Ani Taj) to the larger roles, many of which are performed by the original Ars Nova actors, including Steele, Gray, Ashford (her “Sonya Alone” solo is stunning), Bell, Choksi, and Pinto. In her Broadway debut, Benton is both alluring and delicate as the torn Natasha, but the biggest surprise was Scott Stangland, who was subbing for an ill Josh Groban the night I went.
In an 1858 letter to the editor comparing the comets of 1811 and 1858, British admiral and astronomer William Henry Smyth wrote, “In re the magnificent comet [of 1858], I have been closely attending to its fine figure; and am asked on various sides, as I had the advantage of having closely watched both, which I thought the most splendid in appearance, this, or that of 1811? Now, to my memory, which is very distinct, the palm must be given to the latter. As a mere sight-object, the branched tail was of greater interest, the nucleus with its ‘head-veil’ was more distinct, and its circumpolarity was a fortunate incident for gazers.” I feel very fortunate to have experienced the splendidly fine figure of Stangland, who played Pierre in the pre-Broadway American Repertory Theater production at Harvard in December 2015/January 2016 and who is absolutely magnificent at the Imperial, embodying Pierre as if he were born for the part. With his stout frame and bushy facial hair, he commands the audience’s attention whether taking center stage or playing the accordion or the piano in a pit. I was floored by the original presentation at Ars Nova, in which show creator Malloy, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book and did the orchestrations, played Pierre with an innate charm, and now I’ve been blown away by Stangland, who gives a profound performance that will break your heart — and left me playfully thinking, “Josh and Lin-Manuel who?”
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 8, $42-$149
I saw Falsettos, James Lapine’s new revival of his and William Finn’s beloved musical, during the Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS curtain-call appeal season, when cast members across the Great White Way ask audiences to donate to the nonprofit organization that has been helping those with HIV/AIDS for nearly thirty years. Andrew Rannells made the heartfelt announcement, and people gave money as they left the Walter Kerr Theatre. Although it’s always a poignant moment, it was especially powerful after this show, which came together in the 1980s and 1990s, featuring a heartbreaking plot in which Rannells’s character, Whizzer, contracts a mysterious, deadly disease in 1981. The first act, March of the Falsettos, debuted in 1981 and takes place two years earlier, when the “gay plague” was just beginning; the second act, Falsettoland, premiered in 1990 and is set in 1981. The acts merged into Falsettos in 1992, earning seven Tony nominations and winning two awards, for Best Book and Best Original Score. (There was also an earlier one-act musical about some of the same characters, Trousers, that ran in 1979 and then was revamped in 1985.) So this Lincoln Center revival of Falsettos arrived on Broadway with quite a history; you could feel the excitement before the show started, as the theater was abuzz with friends hugging and chatting so much that the ushers had a hard time convincing everyone to take their seat. At last it got under way, with Marvin (Christian Borle), Whizzer, Jason (Anthony Rosenthal), Mendel (Brandon Uranowitz), and Trina (Stephanie J. Block) singing “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.” And from that moment on, the legend of Falsettos escaped me.
Directed by Lapine (Act One, Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), who wrote the book with composer and lyricist Finn, Falsettos is a groundbreaking show about a new kind of extended, dysfunctional family. Marvin has left his wife, Trina, and their eleven-year-old son, Jason, for his new love, Whizzer, but he still thinks everyone can be together. “I want a tight-knit family / I want a group that harmonizes / I want my wife and kid and friend / To pretend / Time will mend / Our pain,” Marvin sings. Trina has a session with Marvin’s psychiatrist, Mendel, who instantly falls in love with her. “It’s so upsetting when I found / That what’s rectangular is round / I mean, it stinks / I mean, he’s queer / And me, I’m just a freak,” Trina explains in “I’m Breaking Down,” a showstopping number by Block that brings down the house. Two years later, lesbian couple Charlotte (Tracie Thoms) and Cordelia (Betsy Wolfe) have moved in next door and Jason is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, beset by adolescent worries about girls and more. “Would they come, though, / If they were invited, / And not laugh / At my Hebrew / And not laugh / At my father and his friends,” he opines while displaying poor baseball skills. But when Whizzer gets sick, the characters all take a new look at their lives. “Something bad is happening / Something very bad is happening / Something stinks, something immoral / Something so bad that words have lost their meaning,” Charlotte, a doctor, declares. “Rumors fly and tales abound / Stories echo underground! / Something bad / Is spreading, spreading, spreading / ’Round!”
For most of the show, David Rockwell’s set consists of a gray Rubik’s Cube-like square that the cast can take apart and put back together, creating all kinds of furniture and objects, a clever metaphor for the makeshift family they form. The music was revolutionary for its time, with unexpected starts and stops, rises and falls, and multiple pitch changes as various characters chime in and conversationally sing on top of one another (the complex orchestrations are by Michael Starobin); the lyrics, however, are now dated, and the subplot of Jason’s Bar Mitzvah is an awkward device leading to the teary conclusion. Tony nominee Block (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 9 to 5: The Musical) is sensational, giving a don’t-miss performance as a strong woman whose life is turned upside down and inside out. Tony nominee Rannells (The Book of Mormon, Girls) is superb as the beautifully sly and sweetly vain Whizzer; together Block and Rannells overwhelm two-time Tony winner Borle (Peter and the Starcatcher, Something Rotten!). Tony nominee Uranowitz (An American in Paris) and Rosenthal (Newsies, A Christmas Story) provide fine support. Falsettos is a uniquely situated coming-of-age story as characters try to find their place in a difficult life, and in an extended family that was unusual for its time. Even if it’s not quite as earth-shaking today, the show’s emotional landscape remains sadly relevant.
252 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 8, $49 - $132
Innovative British theater director and actor Simon McBurney spent nearly twenty years trying to figure out how best to adapt the story of photojournalist Loren McIntyre’s adventures in the Amazon for the stage; what he ultimately came up with is absolutely genius. In the solo show The Encounter, playing at the Golden Theatre through January 8, McBurney uses the art of storytelling itself to dramatize McIntyre’s treacherous 1969 solo trip into Amazon’s Javari Valley, where he made contact with the indigenous Mayoruna tribe. Without any physical evidence, including photographs or notebooks, McIntyre shared his tale with Romanian-American writer Petru Popescu, whose book about the journey, Amazon Beaming, came out in 1991. And McBurney, whose 1999 production of Mnemonic by his Complicite company is considered a landmark in contemporary experimental theater, also uses the barest of evidence in The Encounter, which explores time, consciousness, memory, acculturation, and humanity’s connection with nature in spectacular ways. As the audience takes their seats, McBurney is wandering around the stage, which is littered with water bottles, a box of VHS tape, a desk with several microphones and a laptop, and a central figure — an Easter Island–like binaural head that turns out to be a speaker. McBurney addresses the crowd directly, toying with the notion of whether the show has actually started yet. “My children will always be able to look back over all of these photographs and videos and see their entire lives. But of course it’s not their life, it’s a story,” McBurney says about his smartphone. “So I’m worried about them mistaking it for reality, like we all mistake stories for reality. So I feel really responsible, because as I’m capturing moments on this [phone], I’m essentially deciding what story I’m going to tell them about their past . . . and about the world. But it’s not a reality. It’s a story. Stories are how we understand life. . . . You might say that stories are what have allowed the human race to thrive.”
McBurney, who has appeared in such films as The Golden Compass, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation and has adapted such other literary works as Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes, Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, and John Berger’s To the Wedding, tells his story through headphones that each audience member must wear, with different sound effects and dialogue coming out of the right and left earpieces. There are also sounds that reverberate through the theater, outside of the headphones, that immerse the audience into this created world, from doors slamming shut to random muttering voices. He calls it a “technological trick,” but it’s actually a shrewd artistic device that is no mere gimmick. McBurney plays multiple roles by using microphones that change the pitch, tone, and even accent of his voice while combining live text with prerecorded snippets; among the real-life characters he portrays are McIntyre, McIntyre’s pilot, and Popescu heard alongside dialogue from such psychiatrists, scientists, and other experts as Iain McGilchrist, Steven Rose, Marcus du Sautoy, George Marshall, and Rebecca Spooner, who lend authenticity to the proceedings. Meanwhile, McIntyre claims to communicate with members of the Mayoruna, including Beam, Barnacle, Tuti, and Red Cheeks, via some kind of telepathy that echoes McBurney’s use of the headphones for the audience. Meanwhile, he is sharing the story with his seven-year-old daughter, Noma. “Dadda, who are you talking to?” she asks early on. “I’m not talking to anybody, sweetie,” he replies. “Yes, you are!” she demands. “No, I’m not. Well, I am in a way,” he answers. “But there’s nobody there!” she claims. “That’s true, there’s nobody there,” he agrees. Of course, McBurney is talking about the show itself; the only person there is him, yet, as time goes on, we feel as if we are deep in the Amazon rainforest, meeting all of these characters, trudging through the muck, and seeing the monkeys that threaten McIntyre.
For both McIntyre and McBurney, the concept of time is a critical element, photographer and performer each trying to capture and share a moment in time. “What lay behind this frenzy, Loren thought, was fear. Fear of the future. Fear of losing the past,” McBurney relates. “So unlike these people, he thought. They never think of the future, they don’t hoard or store up belongings. Time for them was an invisible companion, something comfortable and unseen like the air. For us, the civilizados, time was a possession. An increasingly more efficient machine.” Time for the Mayoruna is changeable, while the West’s obsession with time is limiting and controlling. As McBurney writes in a new foreword to Popescu’s book, “Our adamantine vision of time as an arrow, moving in a pitiless irreversible horizontal motion towards oblivion, is called into doubt. Could it be that this version of time is a fiction, a story that only exists in our common imagination? Our idea of distance, crucially the distance between one person and another, is also challenged. The notion of a ‘separate self,’ so precious to our contemporary notion of identity, is undermined to the point that it becomes, for McIntyre, utterly illusory. One self, one so-called individual consciousness, he discovers, is not necessarily separated from another by language, time, or distance. We are possibly interconnected in ways to which we are, mostly, blind in the modern world — a world in which, paradoxically, we are more connected by technology that at any time in history.”
The play, which runs approximately one hundred minutes without intermission, is also very much about contact, from McIntyre meeting the Mayoruna to how each audience member experiences it individually, a solitary yet communal experience. “There were so many things here in their elemental state, why not thought, too?” McBurney asks in the show. “Why not the simplest form of human contact — mind to mind. No, for goodness sake. But then something had been ratified, because he had been given this most beautiful gift.” We have also been given a most beautiful gift, The Encounter, which is essentially transmitted mind to mind in a mesmerizing tour de force by McBurney; also deserving of major kudos are set designer Michael Levine, sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, lighting designer Paul Anderson, and projection designer Will Duke, who all participate in this amazing feat. At the end of the show, I fully believed that I had traveled through the Amazon with McBurney and McIntyre, had seen the Mayoruna, had felt the heat and fought off the mosquitoes, had experienced the fear and loneliness McIntyre had experienced, even though it was essentially all just McBurney getting inside my head and manipulating, and freeing, my mind. “To accept that our ability to hear, to listen to each other, is perhaps essential for our collective survival,” McBurney also writes in his foreword to Amazon Beaming. “These thoughts are urgent because, in order to survive, we need to acknowledge that there is another way of seeing the world and our place in it.” That could not be more true, today more than ever.
222 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 22, $40- $159
Tony winners Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber take a somewhat unexpectedly playful tack in Josie Rourke’s Donmar Warehouse production of Christopher Hampton’s 1985 devilishly wicked Olivier Award winner, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, running at the Booth Theatre through January 22. In early 1780s Paris, former lovers La Marquise de Merteuil (McTeer) and Le Vicomte de Valmont (Schreiber) spend their days and nights calculating who they can sleep with, turning the art of seduction into a malicious game in which they manipulate and humiliate friends, enemies, strangers, and acquaintances primarily for the mere sport, although they occasionally have other goals. “Love and revenge: two of your favourites,” Merteuil tells Valmont. When Merteuil expresses her dissatisfaction with Valmont’s decision to attempt to bed the married, eminently proper Madame de Tourvel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) instead of the virginal fifteen-year-old Cécile Volanges (Elena Kampouris), daughter of Madame de Volanges (Ora Jones), who has spread talk of his bad-boy reputation, he explains, “I can’t agree with your theory about pleasure. You see, I have no intention of breaking down [Madame de Tourvel’s] prejudices. I want her to believe in God and virtue and the sanctity of marriage, and still not be able to stop herself. I want passion, in other words. Not the kind we’re used to, which is as cold as it’s superficial. I don’t get much pleasure out of that anymore. No. I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that’s most important to her. Surely you understand that. I thought ‘betrayal’ was your favourite word.” Accusing him of developing real feelings for Madame de Tourvel, Merteuil claims, “Love is something you use, not something you fall into, like quicksand, don’t you remember? It’s like medicine; you use it as a lubricant to nature.” Other sexual innuendos include such phrases as “I know Belleroche was pretty limp,” “I want you to help me stiffen his resolve,” “The position in which I find myself,” “Nothing firm,” and “I’m sure she’ll soon be back in the saddle.” Determined to bed Madame de Tourvel, Valmont heads out to the summer cottage of his elderly aunt, Madame de Rosemonde (Mary Beth Peil), where Madame de Tourvel is staying while her husband is off at war. In the meantime, Merteuil decides to go after young Cécile’s love, Le Chevalier Danceny (Raffi Barsoumian), as her next sexual toy.
Based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 epistolary novel about sexual manipulation, humiliation, and seduction in pre-revolutionary France, Les Liaisons Dangereuses has been adapted into numerous stage and screen versions as well as radio dramas, ballets, and operas; among the duos who have portrayed Merteuil and Valmont (or their equivalents) onstage and -screen are Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, Jeanne Moreau and Gérard Philipe, Glenn Close and John Malkovich, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe, Catherine Deneuve and Rupert Everett, Duncan and Ciarán Hinds, and Annette Bening and Colin Firth. McTeer (Mary Stuart, A Doll’s House) and Schreiber (A View from the Bridge, Glengarry Glen Ross) are not quite electrifying in their roles, sometimes seeming more like brother and sister — if siblinghood makes one think of Cersei and Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones. Valmont’s seduction of Cécile turns ugly fast, and his wooing of Madame de Tourvel has echoes of Richard III, but without the explicit evil. Tom Scutt’s costumes are rich and elegant but his set, a dilapidated living room with paintings (some wrapped partially with plastic, which would not be invented for another 125 years) lying on the floor against the walls, is rather mystifying; perhaps it represents the coming fall of the aristocracy in France, or maybe it is meant to evoke Merteuil’s and Valmont’s damaged states of mind. But Mark Henderson’s lighting is splendid, from circles of candles to chandeliers lowered from above. Rourke (Privacy, The Machine) has delivered a pleasurable period drama, if one that is not quite as illicitly rousing and arousing as it could have been.