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The idle aristocracy has long fascinated those of us who pack sandwiches for lunch at our desks. "They are different," as F. Scott Fitzgerald noted with understated clarity. And it is not just because they have money, as Fitzgerald's friend Ernest Hemingway replied dryly.

Centuries earlier, Pierre Choderlos dé Laclos' obsession with the wealthy expressed itself in contempt. His novel, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," depicted vain and silly people who wrecked the lives of others simply for their amusement. Playwright Christopher Hampton adapted the intriguing machinations for the stage and then again for the film "Dangerous Liaisons."

Torch Theater's production of the play, which opened Friday, has a fine feel for the languid opulence of 18th-century France. Rich Hamson's costumes -- particularly the extravagant ladies' gowns -- are sumptuous triumphs drenched in regal colors and crisp effects. Michael Hoover's set is coolly fine, largely defined by chaises longues and a faux stone floor.

This presentation, lovely as it is, nonetheless reminds us that the play itself is a bauble. Hard as we try to despise these spiteful villains, or even enjoy the delicious wickedness of their ways, the cold schemes don't land.

Stacia Rice plays Marquise de Merteuil and John Middleton is Vicomte de Valmont. These two former lovers launch vengeful plots aimed at spoiling the happiness of their associates. Their poisoned bombs find the mark principally with Madame de Tourvel (Mo Perry) and Cécile Volange (Katharine Moeller), although no one escapes the dirty collateral damage.

Craig Johnson has directed with an efficiency that demands our constant attention. Ann Michels and Matt Riehle contribute period music, making transitions an essential part of the play. However, for all the sexy naughtiness implied in the play's title, Johnson's production does not breathe with enough cunning deceit.

Middleton's Valmont has a briskness, an almost matter-of-fact dispatch that broaches no nonsense; but this play is all about nonsense. As well spoken and refined as Middleton's portrayal comes off, we never see the predatory animal lurking within this rake, a character who should instill in us conflicting reactions of attraction and revulsion.

Rice fares better as the enigmatic Marquise, beautifully self-possessed and focused in monologues about the station of women in pre-revolutionary France. However, a dash more flair in scenes with Middleton's Vicomte could have better stirred the chemistry. We never quite sense the push and pull between these two.

Perry perfectly finds the emotional transparency of Madame de Tourvel, a woman defined by her steely edge and fragile vulnerability. Perry's reactions are instantaneous and full as she resists the Vicomte's advances and then releases herself in a flood of helpless passion.

Moeller shows well the loosening effect a night in bed with the Vicomte has on young Cécile, and Liam Benzvi captures the bumbling naif who is used by the marquise for her pleasure.


What: By Christopher Hampton. Directed by Craig Johnson for Torch Theater.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Plus, 7:30 next Mon. Ends Feb. 4.

Where: Minneapolis Theatre Garage, 711 W. Franklin Av., Mpls.

Tickets: $20-$30, 952-929-9097 or