Amid the scorch and swelter of July, the Lincoln Center Festival offers two plays devoted to desires chill and cruel. In Complicite’s Shun-kin, based on the writings of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, and Théâtre de l’Atelier’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, adapted from Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s novel, a razor blade lurks in every chocolate box, poison in every bouquet.
These plays present affairs of the heart as violent myocardial infarctions. Characters punch, kick, scratch, stab, abuse, and abandon—all in the name of love.
In Shun-kin, performed in Japanese with English supertitles, director Simon McBurney adapts two of Tanizaki’s works, an essay on aesthetics titled “In Praise of Shadows” and the short story “A Portrait of Shun-kin,” which concerns a blind girl who becomes a master of the samisen and the besotted servant, Sasuke, who sacrifices his dignity and sight to gratify her whims.
The actual narrative takes a while to warm up as McBurney shrouds it within at least three framing devices—the recollections of the elderly Sasuke (the magnificent Yoshi Oida), the philosophical observations of Tanizaki, and a voiceover actress’s recording of the story. The actress (Ryoko Tateishi) is herself enmeshed in a difficult romance, and her crabby phone conversations with her current lover helpfully puncture Shun-kin‘s avant affectations (the emphasis on story theater; the deployment of actors as walls, doors, and trees).
However fraught the actress’s love affair, that of Sasuke and Shun-kin soon eclipses it. While still a child, Shun-kin attaches herself to the submissive Sasuke, demanding his absolute devotion and beating him on the least pretext. Shun-kin also requires sex, and as she is played by a bunraku puppet, these sadomasochistic scenes should raise the eyebrows—if not necessarily the body temperatures—of all but the most jaded theatergoers.
Because while Shun-kin aims at the dark heart of desire, it doesn’t land there. The tone remains cool and somewhat remote. Blame the framing devices, perhaps, or the poise of the performers, or the precision of McBurney’s staging, gloomily illuminated by Paul Anderson’s exquisite lighting. This is a show to trouble the mind even as it leaves the pulse regular and steady.
Much the same could be said of Liaisons, performed in French with English supertitles and directed by John Malkovich with a young cast clad in a mix of rococo splendor (corsets, frock coats) and contemporary leisure wear (T-shirts, jeans). A few of the women wear next to nothing.
Malkovich encourages his cast toward a relaxed, louche tone. When not engaged in a scene, they sprawl in a series of side chairs, placidly observing the action. While Yannik Landrein offers a nicely seductive Vicomte de Valmont, the role Malkovich assayed in the Stephen Frears film, much of the revival feels diluted, with neither the lust nor the malice honed sufficiently sharp.
The action does quicken considerably in the second half, where Landrein excels in the scene in which he rejects his mistress and in the deft swordfight that follows. But ultimately, the play makes a case for dispassion rather than its opposite as the characters who succeed, if any, are those who feel the least. Vive l’amour? More like, long live indifference.