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On Theater: 'Parisian' a scathing French farce

April 22, 2013|By Tom Titus
  • Dana Delany, Steven Weber and Steven Culp in South Coast Repertory's 2013 world premiere production of "The Parisian Woman" by Beau Williimon.
Dana Delany, Steven Weber and Steven Culp in South Coast… (Henry DiRocco )

The roiling snake pit that is Washington politics writhes and hisses with unexpected comical fervor in "The Parisian Woman," a provocative new play by Beau Willimon now receiving its world premiere at South Coast Repertory.

Seldom does pure dialogue leave such a scathing impression as in this strikingly intelligent exercise, which throbs with sexual tension — headed by a character who has known three of the play's other four inhabitants biblically.

Willimon cites as his inspiration the French play "La Parisienne" (1885), by Henry Becque, but quickly emphasizes in a program note that his "Parisian Woman" was "inspired by" rather than "based on" the earlier work. Certainly his use of language, which cuts to the quick while the characters engage in the most polite conversation, is a particularly modern instrument, though traces of the French playwright Moliere may be visible.

His title character is not really Parisian, but she spent some time in the French capital polishing her manipulative skills. And her talent for keeping the others in thrall to her sexual acumen is not one that is traditionally acquired on these shores.

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In SCR's dynamic interpretation, directed with surgical skill by Pam MacKinnon, that central figure is superbly rendered by Dana Delany, who'll be familiar to TV viewers as the savvy medical examiner on "Body of Proof." Delany holds the others at bay like specimens under her microscope while emitting some scalpel-sharp dialogue with a winning smile and a kittenish purr. Clearly, she enjoys her work.

Ironically, hers is the only character devoid of political ambition as she arranges the lives of the others — more ambitious personages — like so many chess pieces. As Delany plays her, the role of Chloe is that of a master puppeteer deriving great pleasure from jerking the strings of her companions as she assimilates herself into their lives.

She's an adulteress and makes no secret of it, either to her husband (Steven Weber) or her sometimes lover (Steven Culp) — the latter more consumed with jealousy than the former. Weber, whose character seeks to become U.S. attorney general, stands to benefit from Culp's backstage maneuvers, and Chloe is content with either outcome.

Culp endows his character, who's going through a messy divorce, with anxieties that can only be alleviated by Chloe's maddeningly withheld creature comfort. Weber is more of a straight man in this exercise, strong but painfully out of the loop.

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