Frederíque Michel's deft direction and outstanding performances by Troy Dunn and Sharon Gardner create a vivid, evocative production of German playwright Heiner Müller's free adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The themes of lust, seduction, and intrigue are familiar from the various renditions of the novel since its publication in 1782. But Müller's adaptation emphasizes the exquisite tension between the divine and the profane, as the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil act out their perverse passions in a choreographed dialogue about God and the flesh.
Exquisitely written, the play is an extended tract, a debate about the nature of sexuality and spirituality, but enacted in the form of several role-playing seductions. Müller twists the intellectual screws again and again as Valmont and Merteuil exchange gender roles, further jumbling the perspectives of seducer and seduced. In the hands of a less gifted company, this material could easily become stiff and wordy. But Dunn and Gardner seem to have marinated themselves in not only the emotional subtext of each moment but also the darting, zinging intellectual combat that drives the play. Gardner is a stunningly convincing actor, playing the first section of the play in a wheelchair with absolute conviction, then rising miraculously to perform limber feats -- physical and intellectual. She plays a perfect counterpoint to Valmont in her piercing yet fatally flawed honesty.
Dunn is terrific, switching from the predatory seducer to the sympathetic seduced, all the while relentlessly exploring the spiritual rationale for his tragic existence. Müller's words trip lightly from Dunn's lips, but their philosophical weight sends lightning flashes out into the universe. In the end, Dunn and Gardner summon a transcendent emotional power that lingers long past the curtain. David E. Frank and Mariko Oka give solid performances in secondary roles.
Michel is the beating theatrical heart of this piece, as she drenches the play with emotional subtext and intellectual power. Her work is strong, important, and critically vital in the contemporary world. And she delivers Müller's disturbing, universal vision with beauty and grace.
Presented by and at City Garage,
1340-1/2 Fourth St., Santa Monica.
Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 5:30 p.m. Aug. 17-Sep. 23.
(310) 319-9939. www.citygarage.org.