There's a moment in Donmar Warehouse's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" when La Marquise de Merteuil collapses for a moment in grief, her body bending in half over her panniers, a sob breaking from her throat. But only for a moment. She almost immediately pulls herself up, bringing a hand across her face, composing herself into chilly elegance in seconds.
That quick-change transformation from vulnerable to villain exemplifies Janet McTeer's Marquise. She plays her as a woman who has learned to seduce to survive — in 18th century France, it is the only power she has and she's learned to wield it.
She's the master of this game of drawing rooms and boudoirs, seduction as a competitive sport. She's playing with — and sometimes against — her former lover, Le Vicomte de Valmont (an unconvincing Liev Schreiber). The Marquise decides that if she can't have him — no one will.
It's not clear, though, why this Valmont is worth her effort. In other roles, Schreiber radiates a dark, dangerous masculinity, but here he's earnest, almost puppyish, especially when it comes to his seduction of Madame de Tourvel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) — and in general, he seems a likable guy. Certainly, he's not the equal of the Marquise when it comes to manipulation.
That geniality saves him when it comes to an uncomfortable scene that would seem a lot like a rape in another actor's hands. It's further softened by director Josie Rourke's decision to have the woman in question (Elena Kampouris) enthusiastically jump up and down on the bed when they're together the next time. Yet the scene is essential, because it's a precursor to a later moment of even more extreme cruelty. Back-peddling undercuts Valmont and the narrative.
No matter. No one can look at anyone else when McTeer is on stage anyway. The minute she walks through the doorway of her crumbling drawing room, her skirts swishing silently, the candle chandeliers flickering across her face, she is the queen of her domain.
By Christopher Hampton; directed by Josie Rourke.
Donmar Warehouse on Broadway, the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., through Jan. 22.