CAMBRIDGE — Does a drama about 18th-century French sexual politics need a gender twist to be relevant? That’s the question the Nora Theatre Company asks with its current presentation of Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” at Central Square Theater. All 10 characters — which include six women — are portrayed by men. The production is provoking at times, but it’s always thought-provoking.
Hampton adapted his play from the novel of the same name by Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos. Published in 1782, barely a decade before the French Revolution, Laclos’s “Les liaisons dangereuses” is a scathing indictment of the French aristocracy (who loved it all the same). But his larger point is that every human relationship is dangerous.
The novel is told entirely through letters, 175 of them. At its heart is the epistolary duel between former lovers the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, whose letter-writing commitment and brio go some way to excuse their moral depravity. Hampton’s letter-less adaptation is, like the 1980s film versions “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Valmont,” a pale shadow of the 400-page original. At just 2½ hours (including, in the Nora production, a 15-minute intermission), it could hardly be more.
Still, it’s largely faithful to Laclos’s labyrinthine plot. The action is set in Paris and in nearby country houses, with Merteuil and Valmont playing a kind of chess match. Merteuil wants revenge on a lover who left her and is now engaged to 15-year-old Cécile Volanges, so she asks Valmont to despoil Cécile. Valmont’s not interested in easy prey; he has his eye on the virtuous (and married) Présidente de Tourvel. But when he discovers that Cécile’s mother has been bad-mouthing him to Tourvel, he changes his mind and forces himself on the girl.
If Valmont can seduce Tourvel as well, Merteuil promises, she’ll take him back into her own bed. It does seem that the two of them deserve each other. But Valmont not only seduces Tourvel, he falls for her, and Merteuil, her pride stung, refuses him. In the novel, the pair destroy each other. In Hampton’s play, Merteuil carries on alone with, as she calls it, “the game.”
Laclos was not insensitive to the plight of women in 18th-century France; he wrote in favor of their education and against marriages of convenience. His novel pays men and women the compliment of treating them equally; neither sex has the patent on bad behavior. Nora artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardner sees Hampton’s adaptation more narrowly as “a play about women navigating a man’s world.” Her solution, as its director, is a production “in which men are required to speak in women’s voices, live a woman’s life, love and engage in sex, grapple with consent as a woman, navigate an unequivocal male world as a woman.”
The men playing women in Nora’s “Liaisons Dangereuses” don’t actually dress as women — the entire cast wears white shirts and dark trousers — and they speak in their own voices. I wonder whether Gardner’s all-male version (which she previously did for the Actors’ Theatre of Washington in 2005) isn’t more rewarding for the actors than for the audience.
In any case, the production is not perfect. Janie Howland provides a fine period set (drapes, chaise longue, writing table, country silhouette), but the performances are very modern. And though there’s sly humor in the play (as there is in the novel), here it’s treated very broadly. At Monday night’s performance, Greg Maraio and Dan Whelton, as Merteuil and Valmont, kept reminding me of Jack and Algernon in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
At least Maraio and Whelton are accomplished actors. Maraio in particular gives Merteuil volume. The other primary female characters — Tourvel (Eddie Shields), Cécile (James Wechsler), Madame de Volanges (Jaime Carrillo), and Valmont’s aunt Madame de Rosemonde (Dave Rich) — are conceived as stereotypes and clichés. It’s hard to know whether the fault is in the acting or the directing. John Tracey is more fleshed-out as courtesan Émilie, and Maurice Emmanuel Parent is assured as Valmont’s valet Azolan. But Stewart Evan Smith is callow, almost comic, as Chevalier Danceny, Cécile’s besotted music teacher. It’s as if the production didn’t respect the characters.
As the play turns serious, the acting improves. The climactic duel between Danceny and Valmont is well staged. And the message that love is the most dangerous liaison of all comes through loud and clear.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Play by Christopher Hampton. Based on the novel by Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Presented by the Nora Theatre Company. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through July 1. Tickets $16-$62, 617-576-9278, www.centralsquaretheater.orgJeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.