“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Christopher Hampton currently playing at the Central Square Theater is based on the novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, an army officer and aristocrat who saw action both on and off the battlefield in the heated days of the late 18th century, just before the French Revolution.
A subtly deluxe staging and costume design puts one back in the day when love among the monied and titled French aristocracy was a blood sport, a hunt, a game of one-upmanship tempting to players of either gender.
It’s an age-old sport, love, however phrased, and this production though so far back in history, so above most of us in rarified social station translates pretty well — sometimes.
On the plus side the acting by the principle as well as the minor characters is always solid and sometimes heroic, violent emotions seizing not only pretty faces but the whole bodies of those spurned or manipulated.
Just as in the over-heated court of Louis the XVI, the Sun King, the idea was to enjoy the benefits of your place in the sun but not to lose your head, to stay in control, always, for the next greater benefit, the higher vantage point, the top of the heap.
The two masters of this game are principal actors Greg Maraio, playing Merteuil, a femme fatale of the first rank, and Dan Whelton, playing Valmont, a man-about-town just few crucial nimble steps ahead of the wreckage he leaves behind.
Maraio’s “Merteuil” projects a hateur thick as a layer cake, based, no doubt, on her many wins and zero losses; Dan Whelton’s “Valmont” is the swaggering male stud, swift hips unweighted by a soul or even a puff of sentiment — his bed-mates hardly tasted before turning stale.
Both these masterful gamesters would rather look deeply into the mirror of their own self-admiration, or the equally flattering mirror of the other’s approval, than at who they’ve become. Well-padded with confidence, they bump every difficulty, every ripening contretemps out of the ring of “victory” with the imperturbability of Sumo wrestlers, iron stomachs forward, vitals safely under wraps.
Finally, inevitably, their self-admiration, their massive amour-propre needs no seconding, tolerates no second as they face each other in a ring too small for two.
A residual humanity cringes visibly in both these super-subtle strategists, as each realizes that a deeply flawed partnership, aided and abetted by flawed, “me-first,” social values, is about to leave one a loser, the other — alone.
This final parting, well-played by both former partners-in-deception, now deadly rivals, yet lacks something essential, i.e. there must have been cracks in Madame Merteuil’s breezy assurance; Valmont’s braggadocio, as these two far-from-stupid people glimpsed, if only for moments, themselves as hapless victims of compulsive victors: themselves.
Admittedly, such awareness of a “better self,” lost, is not easy to project, but if not an occasional twinge surfaces, in this progress of villainy, on stage, are the villains engaging? Are they even believable, or simply one-dimensional?
This same subtlety of portrayal I also found missing in Eddie Shields “Tourvel” and James Wechler’s “Cecile.” Both collapse in the face of expert deception, conspiring with a matchless conspirator to overcome their own scruples.
But glimpses of the vitality of the one’s loyalty, or the feistiness of the other’s youth, both qualities that made them attractive prizes in the first place to a jaded womanizer like Valmont, seemed dim: their stalwartness more stubborn than inspired, more perfunctory than lived.
Is playwright Hampton’s script cynical? Is discipline less portrayable than dissoluteness, savagery more colorful than compassion? Or is the subtlety of the brew too insubstantial for even fine, thoughtful actors to grasp — on opening night of a month-long run?
In any case, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” tackles the big questions that those of us who still hope to keep our heads straight, or just on, in these perilous times, do well to attend.
A further refining of contradictions both within and without the actors in a blurringly action-heavy drama and a sharpening of those flashes of existential humor in a sometimes-wordy dialogue would add pleasure and point to our theatrical enjoyment.
P.S. Less central quibbles, but bothersome to this reviewer, was both sexes played by men — for no dramatic purpose I could grasp.
And then, to deepen my confusion, both women and men characters having French names which don’t signify gender anywhere near as clearly as names like “Betty” and “Frank” do in English-or used to do.
(“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” continues through Sunday, July 1, at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, Mass. For more information, call (617) 576-0278.)