07/10/2013 04:36 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

First Nighter: John Malkovich Futzes Dangerously With "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"

Because John Malkovich is one of the prominent actors who've portrayed the 18th-century sleaze seducer Valmont in traditional period presentations of Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses since its 1985 bow, you can understand his wanting to take a different approach when he returned to it for the Theatre de l'Atelier's production now at John Jay College's Gerald W. Lynch.

It would be a pleasure to report that what he's come up with as part of the 2013 Lincoln Center Festival is a refreshing aperitif. It isn't. Yes, Hampton's saucy (pun intended) adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 epistolary satire on a French society so decadent that in hindsight the 1789 revolution seems absolutely inevitable isn't entirely submerged in Malkovich's treatment, but it calls for a definite zut alors!

Malkovich's idea is to show the audience a troupe of contemporary actors preparing a mounting of the end-of-century (end of two centuries, really) click. Yup, it's the old actors-depicted-acting conceit. So what spectators see are the thesps arriving, greeting each other, chatting among themselves while sitting on an unfinished set using available furniture instead of anything Louis XVI that designer Pierre-Francois Limbosch has collected. There's a single bulb-framed dressing table on one side and a man's white wig sitting atop of head form on the other.

The players (speaking in French with surtitles) wear street clothes accessorized by costumes in various levels of preparation. Several of the women have their period panniers exposed by designer Mina Ly. In the second act, Julie Moulier playing the gleefully conniving Marquise de Merteuil, has shed her partial costume and appears only in sexy street clothes and stilettos. With the cast remaining on stage at all times, you almost expect a seamstress to have joined them while at work completing Moulier's frock.

The ever-present nine-member bunch represents another glitch in Malkovich's scheme. This one has to do with confusion over characters -- usually Valmont (Yannik Landrein) and Merteuil -- discussing, not to say dissing, a third character who's supposedly left the scene but is perched alertly right by them.

Okay, after a while, a patron gets used to the convention and even admires Malkovich's using young and little-known actors. And the irritation partially subsides over observing yet one more production where the actors are required to remain visible throughout. (Malkovich explains inconvincingly in a program note, and the tactic was also unconvincing, for instance, in Simon McBurney's 2008 All My Sons version.) The anachronistic introduction of cell phones and iPads -- also very déjà vu all over again -- is also tedious but can be dismissed

The larger problem is that Malkovich's decision is a blatantly directorial notion. It has a start-to-finish in-your-face quality. So there the audience resides, forever aware of direction and therefore less acutely focused on the script. Moreover, it may have slipped the actor-director's notice that offering the play as a rehearsal of the play causes confusion. Is the frequently uninflected delivery by most of the actors a function of their withholding full-out performances until they're actually facing a paying audience, or is their conversational tone what Malkovich sees as his idea of accurately reflecting the dominating decadents and their gulled victims?

In this manner he's does a disservice to actors who too often seem as if they're holding back -- this is most true of Moulier and Landrein -- as well as to the ticket buyers who may be getting the message that what they're watching isn't a finished performance but a low-energy run-through for which they've paid full price.

Malkovich does rise to genuine excitement during Valmont's various seduction scenes, the ones with the virginal Cecile de Volanges (Agathe Le Bourdonnec) and the resistant Madame de Tourvel (Jina Djemba). He also ceases calling attention to himself whenever the randy courtesan Emilie (Lola Naymark) gets off her stage right or left seat to join the action. The famous scene where Valmont dictates a letter while using Emilie's naked back as his desk may be the enterprise's highlight. The duel at the denouement between Valmont and the not-so-callow-any-longer Chevalier Danceny (Mabo Kouyate) also becomes a genuinely theatrical turn.

Then again, there is the play, which still includes Laclos's situations and language. They remain shocking as a view into a corrupting civilization that doesn't look entirely dated more than two hundred years later. Valmont's slyly persuasive tactics, his guileful logic and Merteuil's undeterred revenge compulsion are up there with, among others, Iago's inflexible need to undo his supposed best friend, Othello. Laclos's work continues to serve as corollary to the saying that goes, "It's not enough to succeed, one's friends must fail."

When Laclos was starting the novel, he let a friend know he wanted to shock the world - -an early example of the intention to epater le bourgeoisie. That he did and continues to do, although I believe he could have scandalized the common folk even more had he not felt compelled to give le Vicomte de Valmont and la Marquise de Merteuil their eventual comeuppances. It's as if he's foreshadowing Hollywood's 1930 Hayes Code dictum that criminal deeds must be punished.

Maybe it's just me, but I think the shock-o-meter would register even higher if the novel's and then the play's nefarious pair get away not with actual murder -- they don't commit any of those- -b ut with their wholesale murder of reputations. So for me, Les Liaisons Dangereuses has an unsatisfying ending. But director Malkovich couldn't fix that one, whereas there are too many others he could have ameliorated.

In closing: One spot of bother he can eliminate immediately is Emilie's chanting a bit of "I Wanna Be Loved By You" as if she's Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. Hot, it's not.