Playwright: adapted by Christopher. Hampton from the novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. At: AstonRep Theatre Company at the Raven Complex, 6157 N. Clark St. Tickets: 773-828-9129; www.astonrep.com; $20. Runs through: June 21
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel is nowadays associated with a high-calorie costume romp featuring a pair of rich, sexy, incorrigible villains: the preening Marquise de Merteuil, whose pique at being dumped by her boyfriend leads her to transform his convent-raised fiancée into a wanton slut, abetted by the priapal Vicompte de Valmont, currently preoccupied with luring a young matron renowned for her fidelity into adultery.
Since both corrupters eventually come to regret their inhumanity, a case can be made for Laclos preaching a moral lesson, but Christopher Hampton's 1985 adaptation finds more delight in the characteristically British penchant for watching unredeemed sociopaths bully their easily gulled acquaintances.
Veteran troupers capable of oozing charm even as they wallow in power-porn license can temporarily suspend our repugnance for petty idlers of misanthropic mien, but Aston Rep director Charlie Marie McGrath favors a more socially conscious interpretation. This involves transporting our decadent milieu from ancient regime France to Czarist Russia, with court circles now congregated in St. Petersburg instead of Paris, playboys plying their mistresses with vodka instead of champagne, duels fought with sabers instead of rapiers and Tatar motifs embellishing the vintage gowns of the wealthy patrician ladies. Anachronisms dating from Laclos' time ( like blood-letting as standard medical procedure ) are shrugged off, while McGrath's playbill noteidentifying our play's period as 1916attributes the Francophile affectations of the fashionable aristocracy to European influences initiated by the Empress Elizabeth nearly two centuries earlier.
This conceptual leap would be difficult enough to bring off by itself, but McGrath's approach also mandates actors adopting a curiously flattened delivery that lend their declarations of passion, lust and suicidal melancholy the unhurried detachment of air-control dispatchers. Sara Pavlik McGuire's Merteuil projects an adolescent petulance and Robert Tobin's Valmont conducts his seductions in a slurring Midwestern croon more soporific than stimulating. ( Courtesans and servants, by contrast, sport playful Russian accents. ) Material luxury is also conspicuously absentcostumes appear to have been pulled from storage following a country-bumpkin comedy by Chekhov or Ostrovsky, and the scenic design, which relies heavily on cumbersome rolling furniture and manually-operated curtains, likewise so.
The ambiguities of McGrath's dramatic universe made for an undeniable classroom ambience at the final preview of this AstonRep production. Whether this reflects inadequate preparation, or irrevocably misguided choices in early development, will be decided as its run proceeds. Until a verdict is forthcoming, adventurous playgoers are warned to take their chances.