You are all. So. Beauuutiful." So says Anita Berber (Ashley Ellenburg) in the opening monologue of Michael McKeever's new play, Dangerous. It is not a compliment. Berber has been ruined by beautiful things, and her slow, slurred words are a warning wrapped in a sneer. She is a bombed-out refugee from the universe inhabited by Dangerous' assorted playboys and vamps, and as she throws open her coat to reveal garters, boots, tits, and twat of a smack-wasted body, one thinks: Damn. What the hell happened to her?
The answer is "decadence," or maybe "freedom." McKeever's play is an ambitious reimagining of Dangerous Liaisons, the 18th-century Pierre Choderlos de Laclos novel that that depicts the moral vacuum at the heart of pre-Revolution France. In it, beautiful rich people who have no respect for authority lose all semblance of morality. They engage in the cruelest backstabbing as well as extremely hot sex, usually at the same time. Published in the years immediately preceding the French Revolution, Dangerous Liaisons prefigured and helped justify that bloodbath. It has since been adapted at least a dozen times, almost always retaining its pre-French Revolution setting.
This is because the characters in Dangerous Liaisons are so dissolute and slutty that few milieus could tolerate them without censure or at least voluble criticism. French aristocracy in the 18th Century is one such group, but McKeever topped it: His play is set in post-World War I Germany. Germany's Weimer Republic was so decadent that McKeever — a South Florida playwright who happens to be gay — could fill his work with open homo- and bisexuality without straining audience credulity. After all, this is where the modern gay-rights movement first flowered.
Berber's opening monologue mentions "The Heaven and Hell Ball," an event she claims she has no interest in attending. In fact, she wasn't invited: Host Victor Freundlich (Michael McKenzie) has no interest in yesterday's "it" girl. The next scene brings us to Victor's home, to which Ernst Mann (Wynn Harmon) and his young lover, Horst Arnheim (Brett Fleisher), have retired after the ball. There is much sophisticated chitchat, and then Alec Wolff (David A. Rudd) arrives. He is buff, confident, and openly disdainful of everyone. He is also Victor's protégé. After Ernst and Horst depart, we learn that he and Victor are engaged in a strange and awful collaboration. Using sex as a weapon, they systematically seduce and destroy the lives and spirits of those they dislike. They rationalize this behavior, but only thinly. Really, they do it for the happy frisson of power.
A plan is hatched: Alec will steal Ernst's young lover and kick him to the streets. Simultaneously, he'll woo Lena Belling (Marta Reiman) — a proto-feminist. Belling is an author staying in Potsdam with Magda Huelsenbeck (Harriet Oser), Alec's grandmother. Alec's goal is simple: He just wants to break her uppity little heart. The rest of the play, minus a few monologues from the wrecked Anita Berber (who totters onto the stage like the Ghost of Germany Yet to Come), is concerned with following this plan to its blood-splattered conclusion.
McKeever's writing is both ornate and breezily casual. After Alec has genuinely fallen for Lena, he says, "I was about to say something gooey, like 'I love you.' " "Oh?" says Lena, shocked. Backpedaling like crazy, Alec says, "You'll have to forgive me. I find the phrase not only hackneyed and trite but overused to the point of nausea." Almost all of Dangerous is written so, with high society rhythms and syntax used to express conflicted characters and insecurity. In nearly every scene, the actors belie the characters' mannered, dinner-party cool, enriching their façades with an earthy humanity.
The trick sometimes fails. McKenzie's Victor is never quite believable — his free-floating, pre-Freudian evil is often downright silly, and he's never quite serene enough. The scene in which Victor describes his early years in Berlin is overwritten and understandably overacted. You try bringing off a line like "I learned to play individuals like a master musician plays his instrument."
Dangerous is also burdened with an overlong denouement that seeks to explain loose ends that would be better left dangling. But these minor failures, no matter how annoying in retrospect, are almost invisible in the moment of performance. The things that stick in the mind are more basic, more tactile: Lena's gut-twisting collapse when faced with the evidence of Alec's cruelty; the way cruelty disfigures Alec's handsome face; Berber's slow, artful collapse into utter dissolution; and her desperate embrace of the National Socialist German Workers' Party in a moment of need.
Her embrace is an omen. Like the French monarchy, the Weimar Republic was doomed to end in blood and despotism. The difference between the book and the play is that the author of the latter knows it and, it appears to me, hints that Nazism is somehow the just moral counterweight to Weimer's decadence or even its logical continuation. In a long, slow moment at play's end, as Victor is lit weakly from above while he stands before a small fire, the shadow of his nose begins to suggest a little mustache, just like Charlie Chaplin's. Suddenly he looks like someone else altogether, and I sensed that the play was trying to say something. Perhaps that private cruelty can, in a world without limits, become dangerously public. Or perhaps it said something darker: that given total freedom, men will always become beasts.
If so, supposing a thing does not make it true. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos was a military man who didn't know many aristocrats. To my knowledge, McKeever doesn't know any either. Artist Paul Klee, who actually lived in Weimar, Germany, did. Dangerous' set is a blow-up of a Klee painting, and there is nothing evil about it. It is simply free, in the way so much of Weimar's art was free: in love with its own muses, answering to no authority or convention. For all of Dangerous' two acts, it is the most beautiful thing on the stage.