‘Dangerous Liaisons:’ VST delves into love and loss

Thomas Emerson

I have no desire to fall in love. I wouldn’t mind “winning at the game of love” or even having “some enchanted evening.” Falling, on the other hand, is so messy. No plan at all. There might be no one to catch you when you fall. You might open up a gash in your leg the size of a New Zealand and either get 3.7 million stitches or die from blood-loss.

My complaint about love is the same as the courtesan’s complaint in Stephen Sondheim’s song “Liaisons”: “Where is skill?/Where is forethought,” she sings. After all, if you don’t play love skillfully like a game, you might fall. You might lose and find yourself powerless. You might even find yourself dead.

As Mme. Merteuil, played by Gabrielle Martin, notes in Villanova Student Theatre’s production of “Dangerous Liaisons,” “Our best course is to continue with the game.” And what a game she plays, handily using sex and love as tools to cruelly impose herself into a position of power. In the first scene, we already find her plotting with former lover Valmont (the Playboy of the Gallic World) to deflower the fresh-from-the-convent daughter of her enemy and bring her proof that he’s committed adultery with a virtuous country woman. Mrs. Potts she ain’t. Monica Lewinski she ain’t either: her relationship with Valmont is not about the sex. It’s about the power. She’s a voyeur, plain and simple.

Despite an otherwise impassioned performance, it takes Gabrielle Martin (Merteuil) a while to discover this power-hungry side of her character. She seems enraged by Valmont’s stories of sexual escapades at the beginning of Act One. Au contraire, Gabrielle: Merteuil would be delighted to hear such tales. In fact, she encourages him to “get to the details.” Plays for power are what arouse her – one-night stands are just part of the game.

The sensuality in Merteuil’s relationship with Valmont subtly hides in the dialogue. But when I first saw the name Kevin Williams on the program, neither “subtle” nor “romantic” came to mind. What did come to mind was “orange.” After all, his painfully-bright orange suit livened up many a scene in “Guys and Dolls” last year. (P.S. Kevin, try some earth tones.)

But, like John Malkovich who played Valmont in the 1988 film, Kevin grabsthe part and runs, low gravelly voice and gangly limbs sweeping the women along with him. And his characterization is dead-on most of the time – like Merteuil, it’s not about the sex for Valmont, it’s really about the power. When Merteuil offers him a “reward” for his assistance in one of her cruel plots (and this “reward” is no Cracker Jack prize, folks), Kevin’s Valmont doesn’t sweat and stomp like a normal male. Instead, he sits staring at his hands, smile broadening. “Oh, the possibilities,” I could hear him thinking.

But Kevin never does quite figure out the possibilities of what to do with his hands. They were clasped together, stuck awkwardly behind him, or dangling limply at his sides. And at some times they seem to be fiddling with those infernal buttons on his suit jacket. (Also unnerving is his tendency to laugh like some eighteenth century Homer Simpson.)

While we’re on the subject of clothes, “Dangerous Liaisons” should be costumed in Louis XVI finery, with silk and satin adding yet another obstacle in the game of love. After all, why is Valmont always tearing off the women’s clothing? Fetish? I don’t think so. A grab for power? Yep. The director’s choice to costume the cast in contemporary clothing (probably a result of our administration’s penchant for under-funding the arts) tears away a layer from the play. And his choice to keep all characters fully dressed in the rather staid sex scenes takes away something else. Sure, I understand this is Villanova, but even Augustine would agree that you can’t make love in a sweater set.

I was often under the impression that the director, James Angiola, had adopted Merteuil’s motto (“It’s beyond my control”) as his own. In many instances, character development is non-existent, monologues are rushed, melodramatic tendencies are not checked, and deliciously wicked one-liners are completely missed. (Mme. Volanges: “You receive [Valmont], do you? Merteuil: “Yes. So do you.”)

And Angiola’s music choices left me baffled. Unless he was attempting to compare hunting with acts of male aggression (I suspect not), a chirpy Mozart sonata with blaring hunting horns has no business playing after a rape scene. It was like finishing Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” and suddenly hearing Nelly’s “Hot in Here” blaring on the speaker system. Wrong.

Besides Merteuil and Valmont, everyone else in “Liaisons” is a pawn. And what wonderful pawns they are. Jenn Heger is a delight as the easily-manipulated Mme. Volanges, and she looked like an actual chess piece in her frumpy black pantsuit. Sarah Reisert (Mme. Rosemonde) played her usual motherly self and, at times, I liked her better than Mildred Natwick who played the part in the 1988 film. (And I think Mildred Natwick walks on water.) Daniel Scully, whose Danceny was rather like a stoned Keanu Reeves from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” was one of the few false notes in the production. You’re an adult in 18th century France, Daniel, not a sophomore in high school.

One of these seemingly innocent pawns disrupts the game that Merteuil and Valmont play so well. Her name? Mme. Tourvel, the virtuous country woman Valmont’s so eager to deflower. She’s nicely played by Brittany Hunsaker as delicate and occasionally angry, yet never a contestant in the game of love.

What disruption, you ask, could this blushing flower possibly cause? She wins Valmont’s heart, and he finds himself consumed in the most dangerous liaison of all. And Merteuil finds that she’s losing the game to the sort of woman she tried her entire life not to be. It’s here that Gabrielle Martin shines, bitchy and injured all at once; it’s here that the production takes off and races to a dramatic close. And it’s here that the game of love becomes war – a war everyone must lose.

What an exciting war it is to watch. Bravo, VST, for a wonderful production of “Dangerous Liaisons.”

VST’s production of “Dangerous Liaisons” opens this Thursday. It runs Oct. 21-24, and Oct. 28-31. Tickets can be purchased at the Connelly Center or at the door.