Sexual humiliation is the best revenge

Les Liaisons Dangereuses set-ups

Roundabout Theatre Company's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" with Laura Linney and Ben Daniels (Joan Marcus, Handout / May 1, 2008)

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It was a deliciously counterintuitive idea.

Cast Laura Linney, that unimpeachable beacon of honest acting, as a high-styled libertine, a bored 18th century French aristocrat who plots the sexual ruination of innocents for sport and revenge. And team her with Ben Daniels, the celebrated British actor, making his American debut as her partner in dissolute amorality.

In fact, though Linney is miscast as the Marquise, it is never less than intriguing to watch her think behind the painted facade of her character. And Daniels is explosively, virtuosically persuasive as her co-conspirator, Le Vicomte de Valmont, that irrepressible cad.

But "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," so exquisitely unrepentant and sophisticated when the Royal Shakespeare Company brought it to Broadway in 1987, feels long-winded and a little dowdy and self-consciously naughty in the good-looking but erratic revival that opened last night at the Roundabout Theatre Company.

It may be hard to recapture the shocking delights of Christopher Hampton's mid-'80s adaptation of the exquisitely nasty pre-revolutionary French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Hollywood has since turned it into three star-driven movies, including the 1999 teen update, "Cruel Intentions," starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon.

The production, staged by British director Rufus Norris, often has a deadly conscientiousness to its artifice. Except for the two stars, the only actors comfortable with the emotional elegance are Jessica Collins (as Valmont's honorable married prey) and Sian Phillips (as her aunt).

Baroque musical interludes (for a countertenor and a soprano, playing servants) break the dramatic sweep more than they enhance it. And bare butts are jarring gimmicks of realism amid the stylization.

Mamie Gummer, so compelling in a variety of recent showcases, reduces Cecile, the convent virgin with the wild streak, into an obnoxious cutie-pie Valley Girl. Others seem too much like actors playing dress-up.

The costumes, by Katrina Lindsay, are a handsome swash of silks and brocades. The sets, by Scott Pask, exquisitely take us from salon to boudoir, from Paris to the countryside, with little more than swags of drapes. Mirrors subtly turn into windows, supporting the impulse for vanity and for snooping.

Linney, a contemporary-theater favorite before indie films found her, keeps searching for psychological subtexts in her portrayal of the hedonistic merry widow. Intimations of damaged feminism were always in the script, of course. But Linney, with her detached smile and averted eyes, comes dangerously close to sentimentalizing the brilliant, manipulative sexual predator into a mere martyr and victim.

Still, such intelligence is always welcome. Her character deepens as the plot boils over. More to the manor born is Daniels as Valmont, whose sense of mischief crumbles heroically as he takes responsibility for the irresistible darkness of his heart.

LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES. By Christopher Hampton, directed by Rufus Norris. Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., through July 6. Tickets, $56.25-$101.25; 212-719-1300. Seen at Sunday afternoon preview.

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