For the most part, not much is to be expected in community theater productions because, for the most part, they are horrible. So, expecting very little, I spent my Sunday afternoon seeing Les Liaisons Dangereuses in the Arts Center next door to the Cats Cradle in Carborro. To my surprise, I was pleasantly rewarded.
The play is based on the 1782 novel by Frenchman Pierre-Ambroise-Francois Choderlos de Laclos, which was undoubtedly one of the more scandalous works of its time. Today, the book endures as a theatrical production and in cinematic form, with onscreen adaptations like Cruel Intentions and the more strictly faithful Dangerous Liaisons.
In 1988, the Broadway and big-screen adaptations of Les Liaisons Dangereuses reintroduced the work to rave reviews. A decade later, critics panned the teen-themed interpretation Cruel Intentions, though it remains a cult favorite among younger viewers. So naturally, it could be difficult to see a small company's production of the play with such prominent preconceptions of how the story should be told. However, this production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses was surprisingly impressive.
Carrboro's Open Door Theatre is currently running its production of the play through September 23. Full of deception, scheming and sex, the work always evokes interest. No one is who he seems to be, and it's natural to expect the unexpected.
Quite unexpected was the would-be strip tease which opened the show. Emilie (Melissa Lozoff), a courtesan and the mistress of Le Vicomte de Valmont (Michael Babbitt), is lying in bed when dim lights rise on the stage. Wearing only a bra, underwear and stockings, she gets up from the bed and performs an awkward dance of seduction to Natalie Merchant's "Carnival." Though provocative, this lurid sequence plays no role in the plot whatsoever.
La Marquise de Merteuil (Dorothy Recasner Brown) is the evil temptress who makes puppets of those around her. Brown used each word very carefully, manipulating her victims with finesse. Le Vicomte de Valmont is La Marquise's favorite toy. Unfortunately, Babbitt seemed quite disconnected from his character, and it was virtually impossible to see his transformation from playboy to softhearted lover. His seductions of Cecile Volanges (Megan Ketch) and Madame de Tourvel (Laura Blake) survived only through wonderful performances from the two young actresses.
Though otherwise nicely executed, the production demonstrated a few minor flaws. Several gratuitous sex scenes served no purpose except to liven up the show. In film, gratuitous sex is commonplace, but it is quite rare in the theater and even rarer in community theater. The aforementioned introduction as well as a bedroom scene between Valmont and Emilie were enough to scare an older couple away at intermission. Also, the women's costumes seemed late O80s rather than present day, where it seems director Rob Kramer has set the play. The final duel also featured guns from another period, which did not support the temporal setting. Perhaps it would have been fitting to update the duel into something more appropriate for today.
Although the production is not flawless, it's hard to find better theater this far from New York and with unpaid performers. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a magnificent story replete with irony and still quite relevant 200 years after its inception. This production offers a rare chance to see such an exceptional piece of literature performed on the stage.