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Peter (Steven Culp), a Beltway trial lawyer is under consideration, “near the bottom of the short list”, for nomination as Attorney General. His inveterately hedonistic wife Chloe (Dana Delany), on the other hand, must juggle her social responsibilities with the irrational jealousy of her lover, powerful lobbyist Tom (Steven Weber). The ambitious and complicit Peter wants Tom to put in a good word with the President’s Chief of Staff, but it is Chloe who knows how to strong-arm the Treasury Secretary designate (Linda Gehringer) into making history happen.
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This world premiere at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa has been concocted by Beau Willimon along the outlines of an 1885 ground-breaking realist French play by the forgotten Henri Becque, a contemporary of Zola, Ibsen and Strindberg. In its initial guise of a boulevard comedy of winking adultery The Parisian Woman translates without idiom to contemporary Washington D.C. The bright bon mots sound stilted, redolent of another century’s rhetoric, even as the wit of the situations feels surprisingly modern.
In his program note, Willimon pointedly declines to consider his play an adaptation, having consolidated five acts into one, removed two characters and invented two others entirely. Yet, as executive producer of the Netflix series House of Cards and author of the play Farragut North, which he co-adapted for the film The Ides of March and for which he earned an Oscar nomination, he indisputably manifests an obsession with the interplay between sexual corruption and political manipulation (or is it the other way round?). As the drollery of peccadilloes gives way to more sinister connivances, Willimon’s gallery of morally compromised egoists grows more fascinating, especially the disarmingly frank and invulnerably unambitious Chloe, who knows just how to tell the truth to get what she wants. Delaney plays her candidly, with an astringent charm that allows her to wield her self-awareness as a weapon.
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Perhaps Willimon’s plotting is less than credible, yet nevertheless the characters’ plotting becomes hypnotically engrossing, the audience rather situated as charmed snakes. And while none of the characters are essentially believable, they are in these expert hands never less than magnetically convincing. Appropriately, it is the women who shine brightest and dominate, as they see the world and its motives more clearly than the men, who are more limited by their conception of what is real and pertinent. Secure in their capability to act, they are helpless before the wisdom and ruthlessness of the women. Gehringer finds a peculiarly feminine variation of fatuousness in her high-powered capability that equips her with a weak spot not unlike the men with whom she competes, and Rebecca Mozo yet again proves herself an invaluable stage presence as her aggressively aspiring daughter.
The invention may be too strenuous, and the machinations too heartless to qualify as a play of genuine feeling, but it does invite legitimate curiosity about Becque’s original and a desire to encounter more of his work, perhaps less freely updated. Meanwhile Willimon remains a shrewd purveyor of compelling monstres sacrées, if not invariably inspired then unfailingly bright and strategically clever.
Venue: South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa (runs through May 5)
Cast: Dana Delany, Steven Weber, Steven Culp, Linda Gehringer, Rebecca Mozo
Director: Pam McKinnon
Playwright: Beau Willimon, inspired by Henri Becque’s Le Parisienne
Set designer: Marion Williams
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu
Costume design: David Kay Mickelsen
Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers
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