Dull Liasons at the Ex

Quartett by Heiner Muller directed by Richard Nash at the Loeb Experimental Theater

Quartett aims to disturb. Heiner Muller's play, a loose re-interpretation of the novel Les Liasons Dangereuses, toys with notions of gender and desire in a series of icily barbed dialogues. Running approximately an hour in itself, the play is carefully prefaced by a series of Muller fragments, apparently intended to augment the spectacle of soulless debauchery. Unfortunately, these fog-embellished effects are symptomatic of a trendily shallow sensibility which comes uncomfortably close to tipping tight drama over into dull farce. As we were informed that the action took place in a post-World War Three bomb shelter, I felt my strongest emotion of the evening: dread. However, consistently good acting and direction just succeed in pulling this production back from the abyss of student pretension.

Carefully, constructedly cool, Quartett takes the complex, bulky plot of the novel and pares it down to two actors who alternate personalities and sexes with cheerless machination in a game of sex and vengeance. Winsome Brown as the Marchioness, Merteuil, plays her role with bloodthirsty relish. Her obvious confidence and professionalism enable her to add the strain of comic self-consciousness that brings the play to life. Brown moves in tightening circles around Tom Hopkins as Valmont, the lethargic predator turned prey. Hopkins' Valmont is charming and at times strikingly perverse. On the other hand, the interaction between these two is oddly flattened, and the seductive tension which might have developed between them never quite takes shape.

Instead, the action is driven forward by the manipulation of voices, both onstage and off. Microphones are a favorite toy for this post-modern pair, who use them with studied playfulness. Sarah Sidman's disembodied voice as Cecile, Merteuil's niece, is an eerie relief and complement to the often static physical dynamics between Brown and Hopkins. Richard Nash's direction is at its best in his manipulation of voice and particular props, such as a book which figures in their games. The care that Nash takes with these elements helps to make up for some of the glaring gaps that the shaky choreography leaves as choreographer Rachel Cohen sends the two dancing aimlessly and clumsily into the far wall.

The white walls and a curious white box provide the only setting for the tragedy to build within. The latter piece is intriguing with its folding-out sides, one a book-shelf, the other a safe door. It's a shame that it is so little used. Steps from the floor to the top of the structure provide the actors with the sole physical embodiment of their power duels, and when its possibilities are exhausted, Merteuil and Valmont seem immobilized.

But where some of their surroundings lose their form, Brown and Hopkins are capable of compensating for the chilly atmosphere, which can otherwise freeze the viewer out. Quartett demands maintenance of that edge which makes the difference between dull and cutting.