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STAGE REVIEW

To duplicitous duo, seduction is deadly ‘Game’

York and Rowat prove nastily delightful

KEVIN SPRAGUE Graham Rowat and Rachel York in the musical “The Game,’’ at the Barrington Stage Company.
KEVIN SPRAGUE
Graham Rowat and Rachel York in the musical “The Game,’’ at the Barrington Stage Company. (Kevin Sprague)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / August 22, 2011

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PITTSFIELD - For all I know, Rachel York spends her time away from the theater adopting stray kittens or quietly needlepointing in a rocking chair.

But onstage? There, York is not to be trifled with. No one can pack more malice into a sneer - or a song. Her glare could blister paint. Her smile could make a shark shudder. Her Garbo cheekbones give a chilly quality to her beauty, as if a “no trespassing’’ sign has been posted around the characters she plays.

All of which makes York an apt choice to portray the Marquise de Merteuil, the ice-hearted aristocrat who likes nothing better than to play chess with human pawns in “The Game,’’ the musical by Amy Powers and David Topchik (book and lyrics) and Megan Cavallari (music) that is based on Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.’’

Barrington Stage Company’s production of “The Game,’’ directed by Julianne Boyd and revised since its 2003 premiere, is studded with exquisitely staged moments, especially in the second act. Unsurprisingly, most of those moments involve York, who etches another memorable portrait in her growing gallery of bewitching baddies, to go along with her Cruella De Vil in the 2009 national tour of “The 101 Dalmatians Musical’’ and her turn last year as the Witch in Reagle Music Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.’’

She is ably complemented by Graham Rowat, who brings a sinister charisma to his portrayal of the Vicomte de Valmont. From their plot-hatching first duet (“The Game’’) to their final, table-turning showdown (“Victory Is Mine’’), York and Rowat generate the kind of electric charge that results from a battle of equals.

Valmont is an amoral seducer who moves from one conquest to the next without a backward glance. With one exception: Merteuil. Valmont was once her lover, and her charms remain so potent that he is looking for a return ticket to her bed.

So Merteuil, eager for a little malevolent fun, offers a proposal: If Valmont succeeds in seducing Madame de Tourvel (Amy Decker), a married woman of unimpeachable virtue and equally unassailable piety, Valmont gets to spend a night with Merteuil. (And if Valmont can destroy Madame de Tourvel’s faith along with her virtue, well, that seems to be just an extra dividend in the eyes of this scheming duo).

Decker is excellent as Tourvel, reaching deep into the well of anguish for a powerful rendition of “My Sin’’ after Madame has been seduced and abandoned by a seemingly uncaring Valmont.

He’s been a busy fellow, because Merteuil has also pressured Valmont to deploy his skills to deflower her cousin’s daughter, Cecile. The reason: The man Cecile is slated to marry is an ex-lover of Merteuil’s who had the nerve to dump her. Cecile is played by Sarah Stevens with the giddy, wide-eyed zest of a screwball comedienne. Stevens is quite funny in “The Music Lesson,’’ a number during which Cecile makes clear that her virginity is not something she’s exactly desperate to hold onto.

It is not Merteuil’s ex whom Cecile wants to marry, however. She is in love with her music teacher, a callow lad named Danceny (Chris Peluso). But Merteuil finds a way to ensnare Danceny in her erotic web as well. As she sings in “They’re Only Men’’: “None protest when asked to serve/ They don’t have the nerve/ They’re only men.’’

This is Boyd’s second crack at “The Game’’ - she also directed Barrington Stage’s 2003 premiere of the musical - and she shows equal deftness in handling big, colorful, swirling ensemble numbers like “The Opera’’ and the confrontations or seductions that involve Merteuil, Valmont, and their luckless prey. The versatility of Boyd, the artistic director at Barrington Stage, has been apparent this summer: She was also at the helm of “The Best of Enemies,’’ Mark St. Germain’s civil-rights drama, which could not be more different from “The Game.’’

Michael Anania’s set is opulent without being overdone, and the cast is sumptuously costumed by Jennifer Moeller. The fathoms-deep blue gown worn by York is especially striking, as are the ornate hats worn by the ensemble as they swan about during “The Opera.’’ My favorite: the chapeau topped by a replica of a clipper ship in full sail.

But for all the elaborate hijinks, “The Game’’ turns deadly serious at the end, as the collateral damage starts to pile up and the consequences of their game become apparent to the two players who set it in motion. It’s a measure of the skill of York and Rowat that, despite the aristocratic duo’s many misdeeds, it is strangely affecting when Merteuil and Valmont discover they have been undone by, of all things, love.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

THE GAME

Musical with book and lyrics by Amy Powers and David Topchik, music by Megan Cavallari

Directed by: Julianne Boyd

Sets, Michael Anania. Lights, Jeff Croiter and Grant Yeager. Costumes, Jennifer Moeller. Sound, Ed Chapman. Music direction, Darren Cohen. Choreography, Daniel Pelzig.

At: Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield. Through Aug. 28. Tickets $15-$60, 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.org