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Hot-blooded 'Parisian Woman' at SCR might leave you cold

Beau Willimon's new play, debuting at SCR, is an imperfect adaptation of a French sex comedy

(c) Orange County Register

April 20, 2013

By Paul Hodgins

Steven Culp, Dana Delany and Steven Weber in a scene from "The Parisian Woman" by Beau Willimon, directed by Pam MacKinnon. The world-premiere production plays on South Coast Repertory's Julianne Argyros Stage through May 5.
(c) Photo by Ben Horak, SCR
Beau Willimon has quickly found fame and fortune by combining his life experience with his strengths as a writer.

Willimon has a background in politics that culminated with his work on Howard Dean's 2004 Presidential campaign. Since then he has made an impressive mark as a playwright and screenwriter, concentrating on hard-edged political drama laced with black comedy: his popular play "Farragut North" and its film version, "The Ides of March," which was Oscar-nominated for adapted screenplay; "House of Cards," the recent hit Netflix series about Machiavellian high-level power struggles inside the Beltway. Willimon's accomplishments aren't too shabby for a guy who's still on the right side of 40.

Victorian-era French social satire, though, isn't Willimon's métier. A frothy tale of lust and casual adultery doesn't mix well with his home turf, the deadly serious world of Washington politics.

Willimon gamely tackles the challenge of melding the two seemingly irreconcilable genres in "The Parisian Woman," his latest play, which made its world premiere Friday on South Coast Repertory's Julianne Argyros Stage. Given the depth of his talents, it shouldn't be surprising that he pulls it off at certain moments. But ultimately such sleight of hand is too tall an order even for Willimon. He's good, but nobody can keep oil and water combined for long.

"The Parisian Woman" was commissioned by New York's Flea Theater, which was interested in an adaptation of "La Parisienne" (1886) by obscure French playwright Henri Becque, a play about a married woman who also keeps two lovers. Becque was drawn to the shenanigans and hypocrisy of the Parisian haute bourgeoisie at a time when infidelity was unthinkably shocking as a theatrical theme (even if it was widely practiced).

Willimon transfers the story to present-day Washington. The unfaithful woman is Chloe (Dana Delany), the soignée wife of an ultra-successful corporate lawyer named Tom (Steven Weber).

Dana Delany (Chloe), Steven Weber(Tom) and Steven Culp (Peter) in a scene from Beau Willimon's new play, "The Parisian Woman," making its world premiere at SCR.
(c) Photo by Henry DiRocco, SCR
We first meet Chloe not with Tom, but with her lover Peter (Steven Culp), a Washington insider who has the ear of powerful people within the new Presidential administration. He has come unexpectedly to Tom and Chloe's elegant Washington home because his ardor burns as hot as his frustration over their inability lately to consummate their lust.

Tom walks into the middle of their meeting, but he seems oblivious to his wife's unfaithfulness. How could that be?

It turns out that he's not. Tom tolerates the affair (he even seems to be implicitly encouraging it) because Peter might be useful in landing him a job he covets: U.S. Attorney General. Tom isn't in the top tier of candidates, but a few well-placed words from Peter to the right people could change that. Tom is a skilled lawyer, but he lacks Chloe's talents of persuasion and seduction, and he long ago realized he needs her gifts to achieve his career goals.

In a meeting with her new friend Jeanette (Linda Gehringer), a powerful woman who has just accepted the position of Treasury Secretary, Chloe claims to be completely uninterested in a career. Jeanette makes a strong counter-argument for using one's gifts to make a mark. "You don't have to make a mark to be fulfilled," Chloe responds.

Of course, Chloe has a career and leaves big, messy marks. Despite her claims to the contrary and her cool, carefree manner, she's a serial blackmailer who uses sex to get what she wants: success for her husband.

Unfortunately, the story's high-powered Washington setting makes the stakes so stratospherically high that "The Parisian Woman" loses any connection to the tart farce of its progenitor. Chloe's actions have huge consequences. They're major moral and ethical transgressions which few will find either funny or forgivable. And Tom's acquiescence is equally hard to accept: cynicism and ambition trumping even the marriage vows.

That said, "The Parisian Woman" has many naughtily enjoyable moments, though it shows signs of early-draft bumpiness. A crucial meeting between Chloe and Jeanette goes on much too long.

Delany is well cast as Chloe. Tall, slender and sweet-faced, she makes her character seem completely harmless. It's a lethal quality, allowing Chloe to deceive people and get them to do her bidding. Delany shows us that Chloe can pull off the most heinous acts without breaking a sweat or raising her voice. And her Chloe is so calmly persuasive you might find yourself agreeing with her even as you pick your jaw up off the floor.

As Peter, Culp is a delightful mess of sweaty intentions - lust, fear, anger. Clearly, this is a man who can be manipulated like a panicky sheep.

Tom is more opaque in his motives. We expect to see uncertainty about the morality of his actions, but like Chloe Tom has long ago decided to give up a lot in the pursuit of power. Unfortunately, that makes it tough for an actor to portray him sympathetically, and Weber doesn't crack that challenge.

In smaller roles, Gehringer and Rebecca Mozo, who plays Jeanette's daughter Rebecca, are equally enjoyable as two women obsessed with career success. Rebecca's realization that she might be on a tragically wrong path is perhaps the play's most poignant and human moment. Mozo plays it perfectly.

Director Pam MacKinnon lets the pace get deliberative at times, which can bog things down. (The momentum isn't helped by Marion Williams' sets, which are wonderfully detailed but take too long to change.) The rest of the production team, as usual for SCR, is rock-solid. Cricket S. Myers' moody, restless sound design is a standout, hinting at deeper emotions that Willimon's story doesn't often reveal.

'The Parisian Woman'

Where: Julianne Argyros Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Through May 5. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
How much: $20-$70
Length: 1 hour, 25 minutes (no intermission)
Suitability: Adult themes and language
Tickets: 714-708-5555

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