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.
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
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.
Longtime SCR favorite Linda Gehringer provides some old-school haughtiness as the wife of a powerful politician who can't handle his liquor (mercifully, we are spared his definitive character scene). Her daughter, an ambitious law school graduate, is coyly played with a seemingly innocent sensual quality by Rebecca Mozo, whose own dark secret comes to light eventually.
The power of the spoken word is exemplified in a scene where Delany and Gehringer sit and chat for what seems an unusually long time until Delany drops a bomb of information that leaves Gehringer utterly flummoxed. These are two excellent actresses at the top of their game, and their sense of pace and timing is dead-on.
Marion Williams' scenic designs move seamlessly in and out of the spotlight as the scenes shift during this long one-act play. Eye-pleasing costumes by David Kay Mickelsen and sharp lighting by Lap Chi Chu also add immeasurably to the atmosphere.
"The Parisian Woman" is premiering at SCR as part of its Pacific Playwrights Festival, and certainly should merit further production from here to New York. It's a highly literate adventure with verbal rapiers, beautifully presented at South Coast Repertory.
If You Go
What: "The Parisian Woman"
Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees until May 5
Cost: $20 to $60