Novel of decadence brought to stage in import from Britain

Les Liaisons Dangereuses Play by Christopher Hampton, from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos. Directed by Howard Davies. Dark deeds plotted and performed in a white-on-white ambiance - such are the bold contrasts employed to project the shimmering decadence depicted in Christopher Hampton's ``Les Liaisons Dangereuses,'' at the Music Box. Still running in London, the Royal Shakespeare Company's prizewinning hit comes to New York with almost its entire original cast.

Working from an 18th-century French novel by Choderlos de Laclos, Mr. Hampton has created his own distinctive group portrait of aristocratic worldlings whose pastimes included sexual exploitation of the susceptible and defenseless.

``I thought betrayal was your favorite word,'' remarks the dissolute Valmont (Alan Rickman) to Merteuil (Lindsay Duncan), the ex-mistress who has remained his confidante. ``No, no, cruelty,'' replies the equally cynical Merteuil.

Valmont finally pays with his life for the cruelty and betrayal he and Merteuil have inflicted. The relentless seducer is dispatched by young Danceny (Hilton McRae), whose marriage plans the older man has ruined. But Valmont has already been self-destroyed by having betrayed a love that was ``the only real happiness I have ever known.''

The road to retribution in ``Les Liaisons Dangereuses'' is lengthy and intricate. The fact that Valmont and Merteuil will finally betray each other is one of the numerous ironies in Mr. Hampton's distanced account of these glittering conspirators.

The play resonates with allusions and literary reference points. Some of Hampton's dialogues flare with a kind of Restoration brilliance.

After Valmont's death, the surviving circle of women from the early scenes settle down to their card game. But a sudden collapse of scenery, the roll of drums, and the rattle of what might be tumbrils presages the inevitable revolution.

Notwithstanding its popularity with London audiences, ``Les Liaisons Dangereuses'' is decidedly not a play for all tastes, even though director Howard Davies has handled the scenes of sexual explicitness with discretion. The performance of this artificial theater piece is brilliantly disciplined. Until the very end, except to Merteuil, Mr. Rickman never relaxes Valmont's masquerade. Miss Duncan's Merteuil matches - and even outmatches - her fellow conspirator. (`` ... I always knew I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own.'')

An exemplary RSC cast responds to the play's balancing of humanity and high artifice. The principals include Miss Burden as the desperate Tourvel, Beatie Edney as the more innocently compliant young Cecile, Kristin Milward as her unperceiving mother, Mr. McRae as the too lately awakening Danceny, Jean Anderson as Valmont's hospitable aunt, Hugh Simon as his colluding valet de chambre, and Lucy Aston as a sly courtesan.

The stunningly designed and costumed production by Bob Crowley adaps itself to the neo-classic architecture of the Music Box. The effulgent lighting is by Chris Perry and Beverly Emmons. Malcolm Ransom staged the climactic duel. Harpsichordist Michael Dansicker plays the classic-style incidental music by Ilona Sekacz.

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