He sweeps into the room with an air that can only be described as rakish: There’s a swagger to his step, a foppish extravagance to his nod, the slightest of leers flashing across his otherwise impeccably polite face. Le Vicomte de Valmont, deftly played by Terry Lewis in the amiable new Good Company Players production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” struts into this production’s famed romper room of sexual warfare with the grace and confidence of a show dog with tail held high.
It’s as if he’s announcing: You want to turn sex into a game of chess? I’m the grand master.
Best known to audiences through the 1988 movie version, “Dangerous Liaisons,” Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the 18th Century novel by Choderlos de Laclos plays out as a sort of “Hunger Games ” with knee breeches. Valmont plays a high-stakes game with his former lover, La Marquise de Merteuil (an adept Haley White), the rules of which basically involve toying with other people’s affections and ruining lives. It’s all done against a backdrop of upper-crust French aristocratic excess that makes the amorality of the tale that much more striking. If these people actually had to work for a living, they wouldn’t have the time to be so cruel.
As a master conniver with a deservedly bad reputation, Valmont juggles multiple seductions with smooth efficiency. Merteuil, for reasons of revenge, wants him to seduce the naive Cecile (Ariana Marmolejo, a student at Bullard High School, who offers impressive poise on stage for one so young). Like an athlete in peak condition, however, Valmont wants an additional and perhaps insurmountable challenge: capturing the heart of the pious Madame de Tourvel (a strong and affecting Kaichen McRae).
The key to “Liaisons” is the prickly chemistry between Valmont and Merteuil, and there are some very nice moments between the two. White is particularly fine at capturing her character’s ambivalence about the role of women in society, and even with Merteuil’s astonishing cruelty, I found myself feeling sorry for her — that someone so perceptive about human nature is reduced to her silly, tawdry carnal games.
Karan Johnson’s brisk direction keeps that game-like narrative moving vigorously along, though in the second act — as the stakes get higher and the possibility of real affection raises its ugly ahead — I kept wanting more sharpness to the proceedings, more of a sense of hurt and longing. One of the dangers of this show, I think, is allowing the glossy surface of the play — the witty rejoinders, the crisp manners, the lush period costumes (by Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed) and the finery of the set (impressively detailed by David Pierce) — to overwhelm its baser impulses. Your pulse as an audience member should quicken when things get emotionally messy between Valmont and Merteuil, and that didn’t happen with me here as much I would have liked.
Still, there’s a lot to like about this show. Three supporting performances enliven the proceedings: Tessa Cavalletto as an establishment aunt; Heather Parish as a conniving mother; and Lauren Burt as a sly courtesan. The production design is sumptuous and smart. And the swordplay, choreographed by Andrew Walton, is zesty and accomplished.
Then there’s Lewis, who might not be quite as “dangerous” as I think could be in this role — but pulls off the rakish part of his character with amusing finesse. He walks into a room and even the elegant wallpaper notices. When it comes to strutting lovers, he’s Best in Show.