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May 09, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

A "nervous hit" used to mean a well-reviewed show that not enough people were coming to see. "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" may be a hit that makes people nervous.

Most of the Broadway critics welcomed this latest Royal Shakespeare Company import, but some were also taken aback by it. It's one thing to spoof sex. It's another thing to do a biopsy of it.

Based on the 1782 French novel, Christopher Hampton's play is full of intrigue and seduction, all carried out as coldbloodedly as possible. Frank Rich of the New York Times called it "a compelling and, one must add, thoroughly nasty evening, its malicious wit fueled by a pair of brilliant lead players."

They are Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, as a pair of bored aristocrats devoted to corrupting the young and the virtuous. Beneath the polished smiles of this deadly duo, Rich saw the bared fangs of "carnivores."

Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press was dazzled by the characters at first: "Their manners are impeccable, their privileges inexhaustible and their morals abominable." But he eventually found them too much of a bad thing--and the acting not that awesome, by RSC standards.

Clive Barnes of the New York Post was dazzled throughout. He saw the play as a "study of corruption and the power of lust" and praised it for "high comedy, high drama and surprising passion." He predicted it would be the most talked-about show of the season.

The Daily News' Howard Kissell found it an 18th-Century period piece that didn't play like one--"theater at its most impressive."

In a New York Times interview, Duncan and Rickman agreed that audiences were hanging back from the play a little, not wanting to be implicated in the characters' ruthlessness. The challenge for the actor, they said, was to demonstrate that people can be morally appalling, but personally charming. A nervous assignment.

We'll have a report on "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" in Sunday's Calendar.

The wonderful Soweto show--"Asinamali!"--briefly seen at the Mark Taper Forum last summer, has opened at New York's Jack Lawrence Theatre. Author Mbongeni Ngema had to go on at the last minute opening night, when an actor fell ill. But that didn't damage the performance. UPI's Frederick Winship found the company not so much an acting ensemble as "a single passionate organism with 20 arms and legs." That's our memory, too.

Our memory could have used some help last week. We listed the American Conservatory Theatre's coming production of Arthur Kopit's "End of the World With Symposium to Follow" as a West Coast premiere. Richard Allan Edwards of North Hollywood points out that Kopit's play was done last season by the West Coast's other A.C.T.--Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre.

IN QUOTES. Robert Brustein in American Theatre magazine: "My big mistake (after Brustein's American Repertory Theatre lost half of its subscribers in one season) was looking at the 7,000 who left, instead of looking at the 7,000 who stayed."

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