The Vanguard Theatre Ensemble may not explore the outer reaches of contemporary playwriting, but it's happy treading in the lands of Shakespeare and Synge.
The latest exploration is a kind of compromise between (sort of) fresh material and the classics: Christopher Hampton's biting, smart adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos' epistolary novel, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses."
Hampton's play was written in the '80s for the '80s, a self-conscious effort to point up the excesses of the pre-French Revolution leisure class, circa 1780, in a Thatcherite-Reaganite decade of greed and similar excess.
Even if in the '90s it is less a mirror of our times than it used to be, it remains a deliciously dramatic and ironic work, a reminder that Hampton is as good a playwright as he is a bad screenwriter.
The Vanguard's revival, at Brea's Curtis Theatre (a much larger and better space for the play than the group's own Fullerton home) restores some luster to Hampton, though this isn't a very inspired production under Dan Rosenblatt's direction.
If a "Liaisons" staging lacks emotional fire, it must have a sharp misanthropic iciness. (Or vice versa--Hampton gives a director that kind of flexibility). Rosenblatt's staging is somewhat short in either department, leaving things pretty lukewarm.
Not until Michael Keith Allen as the playboy-of-playboys, Valmont, arrives on the scene does this show have any energy at all.
Allen wears Valmont's years of sexual conquests with both some pride and weight, vainly trumpeting his reputation even as he knows he must keep it going. Wrinkles show at Allen's mouth and eyes, but his voice is full of intelligently youthful self-confidence. It's an almost perfectly calibrated performance.
Allen sets up Valmont as a perfect target for his ally-turned-enemy, Marquise de Merteuil (Susan Hinshaw), a woman who has turned seduction into an exercise in empire building. Alas, Hinshaw is nowhere near Allen's equal, so the play's all-crucial battle of sexual wits is badly skewed.
While Hinshaw has Merteuil's surface haughty manner, her flat, inexpressive voice constantly gets in the way. Our eyes and ears can't sense anything ticking inside this Merteuil, except for the words Hampton gives her.
For this drama, that's a very serious problem, since the twin plots of sexual intrigue are all Merteuil's doing. Valmont only thinks he's devising his ultimate seduction--of the chaste, pretty Tourvel (Wendy Abas)--but he's Merteuil's puppet all along, especially as he offers sexual training to the young Cecile (Kristin Darlington) as she's pursued by young, awkward Chevalier Danceny (Christopher Sullivan).
It is left to Abas to suggest the tragedy behind this tale, as she powerfully conveys Tourvel's gradual blooming and collapse under Valmont's sexual power. Darlington nicely expresses the pure, carnal fun her Cecile is enjoying under Valmont's tutelage. Sullivan is mistakenly cast to infer that Danceny is kind of a clown, when he's really a clueless youth who's good with a rapier.
Michelle Eden'sQ costumes make everyone look dashing and splendid, with Valmont's banana-colored suit as symbolizing that he's gone to excess. Sean Patrick Small has made a set here that could never fit inside the Vanguard's home theater, and his checkerboard floor reminds us of the games that are going on. John Vasquez's lights are comparatively unimaginative, especially in a final flourish that, in Rosenblatt's hands, becomes unintentionally comic.
* "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," Curtis Theatre, Brea Civic Center, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends March 24. $13-$15. (714) 990-7722. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.
Susan Hinshaw: Merteuil
Michael Keith Allen: Valmont
Wendy Abas: Tourvel
Kristin Darlington: Cecile Volanges
Christopher Sullivan: Danceny
Stefanie Williamson: Emilie
Nancy Lewis: Mme. De Volanges
A.K. Subramanian: Azolan
Kimberley Swatton-Eichelberger: Mme. De Rosemonde
A Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production of Christopher Hampton's play. Directed by Dan Rosenblatt. Set: Sean Patrick Small. Lights: John Vasquez. Costumes: Michelle Eden. Fight director: Christopher Villa.