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Reviews: Delany and Weber Star in SCR's Witty World Premiere of THE PARISIAN WOMAN

(c) Broadway World

May 3, 2013



By Michael L. Quintos

We all know---or, at least, suspect with great certainty---that the world of politics is a hotbed for shady agreements, moral ambiguity, and scandalous intrigue, and where power is the truest of all valuable currencies that everyone covets. Acquiring power (and the status it brings) gets so dangerously intoxicating for some that their own families and their personal relationships suffer from the fallout. Heck, even whole empires have gone to war over it.

Fittingly, in South Coast Repertory's amusingly naughty World Premiere production of Beau Willimon's THE PARISIAN WOMAN, the microcosm of deceptive back room deals and upward mobility centers around Washington D.C. politics, and, specifically, within an unexpected star player among its ranks: Chloe, a layabout housewife, whose frivolous lifestyle of shopping, socializing, Twilight reading, and Angry Birds games is just a sexily-garbed smokescreen for her unofficial career as a smart and tenacious "manager" for her husband, a successful lawyer with sights focused on a much sought-after political appointment.

With no qualms to use her sexuality---mentally or physically---to get what she wants, Chloe is essentially a closer, a deliciously devious deal broker. No wonder everyone around her---including the audience---is mesmerized.

Chloe is convincingly played by longtime TV star Dana Delany, and like her character's exquisitely-tailored designer duds (courtesy of David Kay Mickelsen), the former Desperate Housewives and current Body of Proof star snuggly fits this sexy, seductive minx of a role with great panache and unwavering confidence. An expert in the art of witty banter and crafty seduction, Chloe is a champion temptress, which is certainly useful to be when involved in the favors trade.

When we first meet her, she initially seems aloof. She arrives in her pristine, Architectural Digest-worthy home (designed by Marion Williams) in a posh suburb near Capitol Hill to spar with Peter (Steven Culp, another Desperate Housewives vet), a jittery man that's got a lot on his chest. At first observation, the couple's back-and-forth bickering suggests a long-time rocky relationship. But, then... surprise! Peter is actually Chloe's secret lover, not her husband!

These Gotcha! reveals seem to be a favorite narrative device of Willimon in THE PARISIAN WOMAN---and there are plenty more of these jaw-droppers as the play progresses.

Clearly insecure---and clearly more in love with Chloe than she is of him---Peter admits his jealousy over Chloe's constant male admirers and whines about the dwindling amount of time they share together (within minutes of their exchange, we know exactly who wears the proverbial pants in this relationship).

"Having a lover is supposed to be fun, not something you have to manage," she pouts coldly.

Suddenly, a noise at the front door... uh oh. Chloe's husband Tom (TV star Steven Weber) is home early. And---as she is throughout most of the play---Chloe is cool and curiously calm, unfazed by each challenge. After some friendly, albeit awkward and tension-filled pleasantries between the two men, Peter leaves, clearly unhappy.

Another twist is revealed: it turns out, Tom is actually well-aware of Chloe's adulterous extra-curricular activities. In fact, he condones the deception... because it's all part of their master plan.

The married couple seems to be in love---or are they really? Is Tom just another hapless victim of Chloe's manipulation? The real truth behind her motivations doesn't exactly become clear, primarily because she is so damn good at deceiving people and shielding her true feelings (though she does allow for a brief moment of vulnerability later in the play, describing a magical trip to Paris in her youth).It's no stretch of the imagination to conclude that in this town, career advancement depends primarily on "who you know and who you shmooze." Apparently Tom would like to be considered for the open Attorney General post, and is therefore willing to let his wife occasionally be with Peter---in whatever capacity necessary---in order to gain access to Peter's connections to help steer the appointment his way. But the ruse, they both agree, will ultimately benefit them both in the grand scheme of things.

A question arises: what prompts this lady to do the things she does? When asked why she's doing all this for Tom, Chloe explains that Tom sees her for who she really is---and his reward for recognizing that is to have Chloe's unwavering loyalty. Fair trade?

And since it's never a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak, Chloe has also managed to befriend the new Treasury Secretary Jeanette (frequent SCR presence Linda Gehringer) and even nonchalantly offers to mentor her young daughter Rebecca (Rebecca Mozo), a recent college grad with her own political aspirations. Like the men in Chloe's life, these women, too, are just as fascinated with the redhead.

"Powerful friends are the only ones worth having." Indeed.

Though the play is loosely "inspired" by Henri Becque's 1885 stage work La Parisienne, don't let that deceptive title fool you. THE PARISIAN WOMAN's central character is neither French nor is she from Paris. But by transplanting Becque's adulterous world into the scheming, modern-day machinations of Washington D.C., Willimon allows for a newer, more complex context to envelope the ghosts of Becque's oh-so-scandalous source material. The resulting play, I must say, is a genuinely enjoyable one, filled with sharp lines, sophisticated wit, some interesting (if slightly underdeveloped) periphery characters, and even a few gasp-y moments that slapped me to attention---in a good way.

Willimon, of course, is no stranger to dramatizing the world of politics. His most famous work FARRAGUT NORTH debuted off-Broadway in 2008 and made its West Coast Premiere at the Geffen Playhouse a year later. The play was then adapted for the big-screen re-titled The Ides of March which starred, was co-written, and was directed by George Clooney. And earlier this past February, Willimon developed the Netflix-exclusive series House of Cards, a Washington D.C.-set political drama starring Kevin Spacey.

Briskly directed by Pam MacKinnon with nary a lull in forward momentum, THE PARISIAN WOMAN wastes no time in displaying Chloe at what she does best: getting her way, even if it means trampling on the emotions of the very people she "manipulates" to do her bidding. In most cases, what she does is, well honestly, just bad behavior---yet her actions prove more fascinating than abhorrent as it's framed in Willimon's fresh adaptation.

Perhaps as a way to justify her actions, Chloe matter-of-factly describes herself as a pragmatist. "Don't ever make a mistake of putting love before work," she spouts, trying to explain how she achieves her end goals at the expense of emotional attachment. Though politics on the whole still seems like a Good Ol' Boys' Club, Chloe---a power player without having to hold an appointed or elected office---finds her own way, in a sense, to be the most powerful woman in town. And when she flashes her Cheshire Cat smile, it feels like a sign that ideas are constantly churning in her head...so it's probably best that you just go ahead and comply with her demands, lest you suffer the consequences.

Chloe is truly a puzzling, intriguing character, and from the get-go, Delany---a master of subtle gestures and contextually-layered looks---plays her winningly. It helps that her fiery red tresses act as one large matador cape, tempting china-shop bulls (and bullshitters) to charge if they dare. And she does this without ever having to be overly boisterous. In her coffee-and-gossip sesh with Jeanette, for instance---where lots of revelations come out spewing like a non-stop conveyor belt of WTF---she transitions from wicked to vengeful to downright vulnerable within breathless seconds (having an audience at such close proximity to the stagecraft is an added bonus of seeing this play at the smaller Julianne Argyros Stage). She's a riveting actress to watch.

The rest of the cast is equally brilliant, as each actor takes his/her turn trading barbs and/or kisses with the formidable Ms. Delany. While admittedly there is a certain giddiness that comes with seeing TV stars moonlighting back to their theater roots, having Delany, Weber and Culp share the stage here is more of a testament to their incredible acting skills that transcends what's cut and pasted from a TV series. There are no "take 2's" in live theater, after all, and these guys (and gals) were all compelling in their respective roles.

But as enjoyably paced as the play is, my sole complaint about THE PARISIAN WOMAN is that the play felt as if it was shorter than it should be---as if it's still not quite finished, and that there are more layers to the story that we are just not privy to seeing, at least here at this world premiere production. Much of that lies in the under-sketched characters that surround the more enigmatic Chloe, and may have perhaps contributed to erratic tonal shifts the play takes on from time to time. It's a minor quip, because overall, THE PARISIAN WOMAN is an admirable, genuinely entertaining first stab, and I for one can't wait for the play's next evolution.

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