Malkovich’s Sexy ‘Liaisons’ Disturbs; ‘Monkey’: Theater

'Les Liaisons Dangereuses'
Jina Djemba, Yannik Landrein and Sophie Barjac as Madame de Tourvelas, Vicomte de Valmont and Madame de Rosemonde in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" with Theatre de l'Atelier in The Gerald Lynch Theater at John Jay College. The play, directed by John Malkovich, presented by Lincoln Center Festival. Photographer: Stephanie Berger/Lincoln Center via Bloomberg

July 13 (Bloomberg) -- John Malkovich’s brilliant production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” could pass for a contemporary tale of malice and malaise among the disengaged rich. It fairly reeks of lust and menace sprouted from boredom.

This latest version of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 18th-century epistolary novel is presented in French with English surtitles as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

The tale concerns a challenge posed by the embittered Marquise de Merteuil (Julie Moulier) to her former lover, the notoriously promiscuous Vicomte de Valmont (Yannick Landrein) to deflower the virginal Cecile de Volanges (Agathe Le Bourdonnec).

Valmont also sets his sights on more challenging game, the devout and seemingly unconquerable Madame de Tourvel (Jina Djemba).

The production is set, by Pierre-Francois Limbosch, in an amorphous salon, suggestively lit by Christophe Grelie. Mina Ly’s costumes are a motley of jeans, gowns exposing both their own structure and flesh, and frilly shirts that might be in the window of J. Crew next season.

The Paris-based actors are youthful, sexy and brazen. They take nudity, duplicity and corrosive manipulation in stride in somewhat equal measure.

Clothes Line

Malkovich -- a polymath who lives part-time in France, has his own clothing line, makes iPhone ads and played Valmont in a film based on Christopher Hampton’s stage adaptation “Liaisons” -- establishes an eerily timeless milieu without clashing sensibilities.

And so the letters that form the skeleton of the narrative are composed on iPads, the language is modern but not vulgar, the sword fighting is suspenseful and no element draws too much attention to itself.

The result is at once beguiling and unsettling, and disturbingly beautiful. You only have a few more chances to see it. (Rating: *****)

‘Monkey’ Business

Nigel Redden, the festival’s ambitious director, has high hopes for “Monkey: Journey to the West,” a 16th-century Chinese tale filtered through the combined sensibilities of director Chen Shi-Zheng (who brought the colossally scaled “Peony Pavilion” to the festival in 1999), contemporary composer Damon Albarn and animation and comic-book creator Jamie Hewlett.

The only show running for the entire length of the festival, it’s the story of the irascible, conceited Monkey King and his journey from self-absorption to self-knowledge.

Spider Woman

Along the way, he battles acrobatic soldiers, encounters a sinister Spider Woman looking remarkably like an escapee from Julie Taymor’s studio, finds himself trapped in the Buddha’s palm and befriends a hodge-podge of characters who eventually find spiritual fulfillment.

Acrobats flip, contortionists twist and characters swing, Peter Pan-like, through the air in this Curious-George-meets-the-Wizard-of-Oz tale. Too bad the telling is as flat as the projected comic-book visuals that separate scenes, and as unengaging as Monkey’s screechy, untranslatable chatter.

The circus invasion of Broadway in spectacles like “Pippin” has undoubtedly inured us to such energetic, if intermittently seductive, displays. But the problem here lies deeper, in a pop sensibility that can’t sustain interest when blown up to such an outsize scale. (Rating: ***)

“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” runs through July 14 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, 524 W. 59th St. “Monkey: Journey to the West” runs through July 28 at the David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center. The Lincoln Center Festival runs through July 28. Information: +1-212-721-6500; http://www.lincolncenterfestival.org/current-season.

‘Julian Po’

A morality tale about a stranger who announces his intention to commit suicide and then disappoints the towns folk when he waffles on his promise, “Julian Po” is a rich, if unusual choice of subject for the musical by Andrew Barrett (book and lyrics) and Ira Antelis (music).

The show is being presented as part of the New York Musical Festival, which puts the spotlight on up-and-coming talent. It features in the title role Chad Kimball, the ingratiating, high-energy star of the Broadway musical “Memphis.”

Sorry to report, the material is beyond the scope of both the creative team and the star. Barrett’s book, based on “La mort de monsieur Golouja” and a screenplay, is clunky and heavy-handed; the melodies, mostly in a country & western style, lack any originality.

Kimball seemed to be sleepwalking through the performance I saw, in a rudimentary production staged by Kirsten Sanderson that made floundering fish even of musical-theater veterans like Malcolm Gets.

“Julian Po” runs through July 14 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-352-3101; http://www.nymf.org. Rating: *


What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Greg Evans and Craig Seligman on movies and New York Weekend.

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.