Cambridge, Mass. — Two seasons ago, Robert Wilson premi`ered his witty and inspired ``The Knee Plays'' at the American Repertory Theatre here. That bouncy sequence of 10-minute vignettes (written with new wave musician David Byrne as entr'acts for Wilson's opus, ``the CIVIL warS'') marked something of a change in the auteur director's work - a career which has been considered Major News from the avant garde front ever since his landmark ``Einstein on the Beach'' had its American debut four years ago. Now Wilson's latest, ``Quartet,'' in its American premi`ere at ART (through March 13), marks a disappointing step backward for this most interesting, if difficult, director. What Wilson achieved in ``The Knee Plays,'' a looseness of spirit, an unselfconsciousness, has been jettisoned for the renewed pursuit of High Art.
And more's the pity, since ``Quartet,'' written by longtime Wilson collaborator Heiner M"uller, is based on ``Les Liasons dangereuses,'' Choderlos de Laclos's brilliant 18th-century novel of sexual politics, which last season received a riveting and largely faithful stage adaptation by Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company. That production successfully captured the seductive gamesmanship of Laclos's Machiavellis of the bedroom - their moves and countermoves, their sleights of hand and heart.
Now comes M"uller, whose texts are as minimalist as Wilson's stagings, to tear apart and reweave Laclos's novel with the threads of contemporary politics. Last year, M"uller's ``Hamletmachine'' (also a Wilson collaboration) deconstructed Shakepeare's tragedy to include references to Charles Manson and Baader-Meinhof terrorists - a conceptualist's meditation on society's disintegration. In ``Quartet,'' M"uller does something similar with Laclos and mass-murderer Gary Gilmore - an examination of the destructively seductive will to wield power.
Retaining only the core of Laclos's original story - the perverse series of mating dances orchestrated by those amoral rivals, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont - M"uller surrounds this duo with a trio of mute mannequins: the Young Woman, Young Man, and Old Man. During the play's prologue and eight scenes, this quintet plays out its bizarre and deadly entanglements. The seductions, however, are less important than the intoned speeches: ``If you want to know where God dwells, pay attention to your ... thighs''; ``The greatest bliss is the bliss of animals.'' And so on. As for the political allusions to Gary Gilmore, they are oblique in the extreme.
All this is carried off with the archness of Very High Art. And while there has been talk about the puckishness of ``Quartet,'' due to its role reversals (Valmont and the Marquise play several parts), it is humor of an undetectable sort. Indeed, on stage, ``Quartet'' plays as a pompous treatise on sex, lust, and death. What Laclos achieved was the tension between opposites, a dance between love and lust, thought and desire, the human and the grotesque. But M"uller has bled dry one of the great novels of seduction. What remains has a hollow feel, a rattling of philosophic pebbles.
And in Wilson's chilly formalist hands, ``Quartet'' gets no nearer to sustaining a heartbeat. Even by the director's usual standards, there isn't much to look at. There are no spectacular architectural pictures such as those found in the Cologne section of ``the CIVIL warS'' and ``Alcestis,'' two previous Wilson-M"uller collaborations. There's just a vast blue backdrop, against which Wilson moves the quartet - ever so slightly.
As for the performances, they are appropriately mannequin-like. Lucinda Childs, with her sculpted dancer's body, initially works well with Wilson's architectural staging. With her white shoulders etched against swaths of purple and black cloth, her Marquise is icily frieze-like. Unfortunately, all such illusions are shattered when Childs (by training a dancer, not an actress) speaks - and her speeches are the play's verbal vortex. Bill Moor (as Valmont) seems to convey a kind of exhausted urbanity `a la Ray Milland. In his Santa Claus-red suit and clownish white-face, he hardly seems the Marquise's worthy opponent, let alone a rou'e brought down by love.
The three other principals, in true Wilson fashion, do not speak but communicate only by choreographed movement. Jeremy Geidt plays the Old Man as a human time clock - shambling on stage and off with metronomic regularity, pausing only to check his pocket watch. Jennifer Rohn, who worked with Wilson in ``Hamletmachine,'' is the Young Woman, a role which requires her to smile vapidly, lope awkwardly (in high heels), and play lion tamer to Valmont's snarled sexual gymnastics. Only Scott Rabinowitz, as the Young Man, conveys anything resembling an emotion, even if it is lust. The sole cast member to have performed in the earlier Stuttgart production of ``Quartet,'' Mr. Rabinowitz ambles around with the lascivious grin and carriage of a Bruce Willis.
The lighting, by Howell Binkley and Wilson, however, is eloquent - a jeweler's precision instrument that here highlights Valmont's twisting hands, there tosses up a giant dancing shadow, and constantly fills the yawning horizon with that limitless blue light that is the void behind every Wilson production.