Theatre Review | 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' 

click to enlarge "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" runs through February 11 at Blackfriars Theatre.

PHOTO PROVIDED.

"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" runs through February 11 at Blackfriars Theatre.

The desire to watch rich people behave badly didn’t start with shows like “The White Lotus” and “Succession”— it goes back to (at least) 18th century novels.

Through February 11, Blackfriars Theatre presents “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” a 1985 adaptation by Christopher Hampton of the 1782 French epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

The novel has been adapted in several forms, including the modernized 1999 teen film “Cruel Intentions” (which recently screened at the Little in a co-sponsorship with Blackfriars). Staging this story in 2024 feels both relevant and outdated; the play vividly depicts the horrors of #MeToo and rape culture, though the script doesn’t always seem to know it.

This well-crafted production of a dubious play is directed by Carl Del Buono and centers on two manipulative, callous aristocrats with dark chemistry. (Think the late-1700s French version of Chuck and Blair from “Gossip Girl.”) The Marquise de Merteuil (Erin-Kate Howard), motivated by revenge, seeks to ruin the reputation of young Cecile (Campbell McDade Clay), and enlists the help of her former lover, Vicomte de Valmont (Rick Staropoli).

The Vicomte is uninterested in manipulating a woman decades younger than him into a sexually compromising and socially ruinous position — not because it’s ethically gross, but because he views her as too easy a target. His sights are set on another inappropriately young woman, the married and devoutly pious Madame de Tourvel (Kit Prelewitz). She does not want him, and would thus be a more satisfying conquest.

click to enlarge Rick Staropoli as Vicomte de Valmont and Kit Prelewitz as Madame de Tourvel in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses," which runs through February 11 at Blackfriars Theatre. - PHOTO PROVIDED.
  • PHOTO PROVIDED.
  • Rick Staropoli as Vicomte de Valmont and Kit Prelewitz as Madame de Tourvel in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses," which runs through February 11 at Blackfriars Theatre.
The duo’s deplorable behavior is made all too believable through compelling performances by Howard and Staropoli. Howard captures the cold, callous focus of a woman who, like the spider brooch in her hair, is intent on building a web to ensnare her enemies. It’s chilling to watch her encourage a young woman who has been sexually assaulted to return to her abuser for an education on sex. Staropoli’s Vicomte matches her cruel charisma, and their convincing chemistry drives the play forward.

They lead a strong, intergenerational cast of fine performances, including Prelewitz as the sympathetic, conflicted Madame de Tourvel; Joshua Gleason as the love-stricken Le Chevalier Danceny; and Vicki Casarett as the aunt Madame de Rosemonde.

Not to downplay the actors’ accomplishments, but the show is stolen by the period costumes (designed by Katherine McCarthy). The dresses are dazzling medleys of intricate patterns, layers of fabric and decorated bodices. The hair is stylized in poufs and braids and even a few wigs (designed by Adriana Lipomi). These outfits, along with the baby blue and gold set (designed by Allen Wright Shannon) decorated with a vanity and chaise, offer the fantasy of the past that makes period pieces such an alluring form of escapism.

These beautiful visuals are deceptive. The opening entices audiences with a delightful choreographed sequence: colorful lights (designed by Jena Overbeck) and upbeat pop music turn the 1780s French set into a modern day club as the full cast performs a fan routine. Just as the Vicomte assures Madame de Tourvel that he has become a better man after meeting her, the play lures the audience in by presenting as an irreverent comedy full of sexual innuendo and wit.

But abusive relationships often start with flattery and seduction before things get ugly. The content warning on the Blackfriars website for “blackmail, sexual / emotional abuse, and sexual activity” is technically true, though doesn’t quite communicate the full range of sexual harm portrayed in this show: manipulation, coercion, victim blaming, grooming, assault, intended rape.

For over two hours, callous aristocrats charm their victims until they ensnare them. A crying young woman is told to be grateful to her sexual abuser for preparing her for marriage; a few scenes later, she eagerly initiates more. Another young woman betrays her moral code and initiates her downfall for a man who claims to be in love as he gleefully misleads, manipulates, and guilt trips her.

To the credit of Del Buono and intimacy coordinator Sara Bickweat Penner, the rape and coercion scenes are staged with care. They shouldn’t be easy to watch, and indeed, the lack of nudity only accentuates the psychological horror of women being coerced into unwanted sexual activity, or consenting under false pretenses.

The play means to poke fun at the wealthy and aristocratic, and reveal their hypocrisy and sexual immorality. For those who have been sexually or emotionally exploited, watching these particular forms of debauchery staged so effectively may be triggering. Perhaps these audiences may feel less alone seeing their experiences reflected back. Or perhaps just despair at how common they are.

As Madame Rosemond says, “The only thing which might surprise one is how little the world changes.”

"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" runs through February 11 at Blackfriars Theatre. More info and tickets here.

Katherine Varga is a contributor to CITY. Feedback about this article can be directed to [email protected].
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