Friday, December 22, 2017

135 (2017-2018): Review: CRUEL INTENTIONS (seen December 21, 2017)

"School for Scandal"
Company of Cruel Intentions. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
In the beginning, there was Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Pierre Chodorlos de Laclos’s four-volume, French, epistolary novel of 1782. Then, over the past half-century or more, there were more than half-a-dozen films, starting with Roger Vadim’s 1959 film of the same title, followed by Steven Frears’s 1988 Dangerous Liaisons, and, among the rest, a contemporized, teenage version called Cruel Intentions, its prequel and sequel, and Chinese and Korean adaptations. There have also been multiple radio, television, ballet, opera, novel, and, of course, stage treatments. 
Lauren Zakrin, Constantine Rousouli. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
The most recent entry in the latter category is Cruel Intentions: the 90s Musical Experience, a high-energy, low-budget, Off-Broadway, jukebox version of Roger Kumble’s iconic (despite a 49% Rotten Tomatoes rating) 1999 film starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Selma Blair, and Reese Witherspoon. 

This supercharged offering, co-created by Lindsey Rosin and Jordan Ross, with a script adapted by Kumble from his original screenplay, and a modicum of choreography by Jennifer Weber, is now rocking the low rafters of the basement space at Greenwich Village’s (le) Poisson Rouge. It’s actually the second New York incarnation of the show, which originally was seen in Los Angeles in 2015 and made a pop-up appearance at its current venue this past February.
Constantine Rousouli. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
There, while seated with strangers at cramped cabaret tables, you can order food and drinks while craning your neck to the side to see the stage or twist it like Linda Blair to view scenes behind you. Someone’s cruel intention, perhaps?

Fans of the movie will groove to its darkly comic tale set in the “Gossip Girl” world of over-privileged, Upper East Side, prep-school step-siblings, Sebastian Valmont (handsome, ripped Constantine Rousouli in the Phillippe role) and Kathryn Merteuil (hot-as-a-branding-poker Lauren Zakrin in the Gellar character).
Lauren Zakrin, Constantine Rousouli. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
This reputation-bashing, incestuous (as per “Game of Thrones”) pair make a bet about whether the teenage Casanova can bed the goofy Cecile Caldwell (comedic livewire Jessie Shelton in the Blair role). His Jag if she wins; her bod if he does. 
Carrie St. Louis, Constantine Rousouli. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
Kathryn’s motive is revenge on a guy who dumped her. The apple Sebastian would really like a bite of is the virginal Annette Hargrove (Cybil Shepherd lookalike Carrie St. Louis in the role Witherspoon created). Ruthlessly amoral, Sebastian and Kathryn rule the roost until the roosters come home to crow.
Alex Boniello, Brian Muller. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
Two subplots introduce themes of homosexuality and racial bias, one involving the gay relationship between macho athlete Greg McConnell (Brian Muller) and the effete Blain Tuttle, the other concerning the shared affections of African-American music teacher Ronald Clifford (Matthew Griffin) and the goofy Cecile, daughter of the uptight Mrs. Bunny Caldwell.
Patricia Richardson, Matthew Griffin. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
The night I went the actors playing Blain (Alex Boniello) and Mrs. Caldwell (Patricia Richardson) were out ill but were quite capably understudied by Tristan J. Shuler and Stefanie Brown. Let’s hear it for the talented understudies who make the most of the rare opportunities they get to strut their stuff!

Cruel Intentions uses barely any scenic units, apart from four chairs, a low, blue cloth to suggest a pool, and a white sheet for a silhouetted sex scene, all flashily lit by James Kolditz. Despite its four-member, onstage band’s lyric-smothering, over-amped performance (sound design: Robert Bradley), the show needs only a smattering of music stands and scripts to qualify as a staged concert.
Lauren Zakrin. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
Among the many songs—some borrowed from those on the movie’s soundtrack—highlighting thematic concerns, if not story-advancing ones, are Placebo’s “Every You, Every Me,” Jewel’s “Foolish Games,” the Cardigans’ “Lovefool,” No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle,” Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me,” Mercy Playground’s “Sex and Candy,” TLC’s “No Scrubs,” and, most sizzling, Meredith Brooks’s “I’m a Bitch.”

The last named is knocked upstairs and onto Bleecker Street by the flamingly sexy Zakrin, even if—dressed by costume designer Tilly Grimes in skintight black pants and black bustier (with well-filled red bra)—she’s hard to buy as “the Marcia Brady of the Upper East Side.” Too many of the songs, though, are belted as loudly as possible, leaving little room for gentler approaches. TV’s competitive singing shows have taken their toll.

For all the story’s apparently endless fascination, it's a mite unsettling, at this Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, et al juncture, to be watching a show reveling in sexual predation (involving teenagers, no less), regardless of how many nostalgia-packed 90s pop tunes seek to obliterate your unease along with your eardrums. 

It’s also hard to love the insistent efforts to titillate with salacious language and business that treat sex crassly, not erotically. And when something really sexy arrives as Sebastian and Annette disrobe in shadow play it stops short just as things get really interesting.

Cruel Intentions shows promise but I’d like to see and hear it in a more comfortable environment with less emphasis on the blare and glare. Then again, as a member of the Silent Generation, not the show's target group of Millennials, maybe I should just keep my mouth shut.


(le) Poisson Rouge
158 Bleecker St., NYC
Open run