Sunday, March 1, 2009

Theater review: 'Dangerous' a risky, provocative undertaking for Caldwell

David Rudd, Harriet Oser and Marta Reiman in Dangerous.

By Hap Erstein

Be forewarned: Michael McKeever has gone from suite to nasty.

Last sighted at the Caldwell Theatre with Suite Surrender, a very audience-friendly farce reminiscent of Ken Ludwig, the Davie playwright now returns with an icy, mean-spirited, but darkly seductive drama called Dangerous, his “deconstruction” of Choderlos de Laclos’s 18th-century French novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

McKeever not only transports the story to Germany in the decadent 1920s, he reimagines many of the characters, their genders and their gender orientations. While theatergoers are likely to have difficulty mustering much sympathy for these intentionally cruel perpetrators of heartbreak or for their too easily ensnared victims, it is to the writer’s credit that he never attempts to soften these people or make them endearing.

As in the French tale -- and Neil La Bute’s early film In the Company of Men, which Dangerous also resembles -- two characters connive to attract others and have them fall in love, solely for the sadistic pleasure of then casting them aside.

Specifically, veteran rogue Alec Wolff (played by an oily, muscle-bound David A. Rudd) consorts with a former lover, the effete Victor Freundlich (Michael McKenzie), to entangle romantically both the callow boy toy of a contemporary (Wynn Harmon) and a staunchly feminist author, Lena Belling (delicate-featured Marta Reiman), with Alec.

Succeed they do, all the while exchanging snide dispatches, detailing how completely their prey has become trapped in their web of deceit.

You could say that Dangerous is about the power of love, albeit the destructive power. As Victor puts it offhandedly, “Nothing makes us stupid faster than love.”

And while McKeever veers off substantially from the events of Les Liaisons, it seems never in doubt that these characters are fated for dire consequences, just like their French counterparts.

Interspersed with these interpersonal manipulations are details of the offstage rise of Naziism. Dangerous has little profound to say about the impending attempt at world domination, but the suggestions of this historical period lend the production an added chill.

The evening’s debauched tone is set from the start with a prologue from a real-life party girl of the era, Anita Berber (an unsteady Ashley Ellenburg), who opens her fur coat and flashes the audience, stark naked. As a jolt that announces the play’s adult territory, the opening is effective.

McKeever and Clive Cholerton, the Caldwell’s board of trustees chairman making his mainstage directing debut, then play the nudity card throughout the production. While they have an attractive cast, the frequent disrobing proves to be a counterproductive distraction.

The versatile Tim Bennett comes up with an abstract scenic design of geometric shards, upon which are projected film footage from ’20s Germany as well as cubist artwork of Paul Klee, representing the seismic changes occurring in the art world.

The Caldwell has taken a risk with its continued encouragement of McKeever’s evolution, wherever it may lead, but Dangerous is another step up in quality for this prolific South Floridian. Audiences should be repelled by his character, or at least recognize the danger in finding them appealing.

DANGEROUS, Caldwell Theatre Co., 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Continuing through March 29. Tickets: $36-$42. Call: (561) 241-7432 or (877) 245-7432.

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