Are Americans today better off than the aristocrats of pre-revolutionary France? Spandex has simplified couture, wigs no longer require powder and, thanks to social media and smartphones, epistolary romances can be conducted in real time.
Then again, there aren't a lot of convents left where a ruined woman can flee to die of a broken heart. Changing her Facebook relationship status to single — where's the poetry in that?
Christopher Hampton's 1985 play "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," now being revived by the Antaeus Theatre Company, serves as a perennial reminder that however fashions may change, wealth will lead to corruption and lovers will be cruel.
The battle of wits between La Marquise de Merteuil and Le Vicomte de Valmont, aristocrats of the ancien régime who treat sexual conquest as a competitive sport, was adapted from a 1782 novel and has in turn inspired several films, including "Dangerous Liaisons" (1988) and "Cruel Intentions" (1999), the latter of which re-imagines the scheming duo as modern-day high-schoolers.
Wherever these wealthy, mannered characters' tale is set, we find their outfits extreme, their rooms overdecorated, their customs stuffy and their morals appalling — but we have no problem understanding their desires and weaknesses. Selfish, venal, ignoble, vengeful as they may be, we've been there too. For all its cynicism, the play is somehow consoling, reminding us that the pressures we face today — the social codes that propel and stifle us — will also seem quaint to theatergoers of the future.
This effect is less powerful, though, if the world portrayed onstage isn't specific and clearly delineated. Antaeus has relocated "Les Liaisons" from the 18th century to that more nebulous past where small theater productions live, a kind of undemarcated eternity.
The boudoirs and parlors where the characters conspire are represented by randomly placed furniture and generic screen projections against quietly tasteful paneling. (Yee Eun Nam is credited with scenic design and projections.) Without the superscript headings locating us in time and space, we'd be lost. There is one bed in all of France, a narrow cot, which faithfully accompanies Valmont on his midnight deflowerings.
Jocelyn Hublau Parker's costumes are also a stylistic hodgepodge, and in several cases not very flattering. As La Présidente de Tourvel, Lindsay LaVanchy gets a satisfyingly pathetic storyline, but she has to act it out in a pink jumpsuit with a lace top and bell-bottom pants. It's true that the Marquise makes fun of how Tourvel dresses, but her zingers are displays of strategic cattiness, not design specs.
A small theater needn't deliver lavish properties, but the disjointed values here feel like missed opportunities, contributing to a sense that the production, directed by Robin Larsen, is still searching for a unifying vision.
Antaeus double-casts its shows; the two casts alternate from performance to performance, occasionally mingling. The Libertines cast, which I saw, switches off with the Lovers. Both are talented crews, and double-casting has succeeded in many past productions. But "Liaisons" is an over-the-top melodrama, with passions so grand and dialogue so brittle and Wildean that if the actors don't generate genuine, palpable chemistry, they become caricatures.
Evaluated independently, each performance is solid. As the Marquise, Reiko Aylesworth is exquisitely controlled, only her flashing eyes hinting at the venom behind her porcelain complexion. Henri Lubatti makes Valmont a suitably eely, sexy bad boy, and he's good at showing us the cracks in his facade. Together, though, they never generate heat, or convince us that real hungers underlie their chilly badinage.
Valmont's ultimate undoing is that after seducing the goody-goody Tourvel for sport, he genuinely falls in love with her. It's important that we believe in their love, or at least believe that they believe in it. But here the performers never seem like more than distant acquaintances. Let's hope they get to know one another better during the run.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’
Where: Antaeus' Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m Sundays; ends Dec. 10
Info: (818) 506-18983 or www.Antaeus.org
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.