Francophiles be warned: Beau Willimon’s new play, “The Parisian Woman,” at the South Coast Repertory is not actually about a Parisian woman. Its title is a vestige of its complicated provenance.
A few years ago Willimon was commissioned by New York’s Flea Theater to adapt “La Parisienne,” a boulevard farce by the 19-century French playwright Henry Becque.
So Willimon, a writer inspired more by political than by drawing-room scandals (he wrote “Farragut North,” co-wrote the screenplay it inspired, “The Ides of March,” and developed the Netflix series “House of Cards”), relocated the story of a cagily unfaithful wife to contemporary Washington, D.C., where in some ways it fits very nicely and in other ways, unsurprisingly, it does not.
In reframing it, Willimon did a lot more than replace billets-doux with text messages; he added and deleted characters and sharpened the fluffy storyline to a rapier point.
Also, the matter-of-fact adultery in Becque’s “La Parisienne” evidently scandalized his audience at the time, but to replicate that effect on jaded us, Willimon worked in some extra twists that he probably hoped would seem more shocking than they do.
The result, at least in this entertaining if ultimately puzzling world premiere -- which unites the star power of rising director Pam MacKinnon (“Clybourne Park”); actors Dana Delany, Steven Culp and Steven Weber; scenic designer Marion Williams; and sound designer Cricket S. Myers -- still feels stuck between two genres, its transformation incomplete. Is it a light comedy or a taut political thriller? And in either case, what is it trying to tell us about the Parisian (or Washingtonian) woman at its center?
As the eponymous woman, Chloe (originally Clothilde), who is irresistible to everybody, Delany is a persuasive choice. She’s so bright-haired, slim and gorgeous in the form-fitting outfits in which David Kay Mickelsen has gift-wrapped her that I was tempted to join the horde of admirers she is obliged to fend off onstage.
In the opening scene, which closely follows Becque’s, she is being confronted by a jealous lover, Peter (Culp), when her lawyer husband, Tom (Weber), unexpectedly comes home.
Not to worry: Sophisticated Tom knows about the affair -- even encourages it -- because he’s on the shortlist for attorney general, “but it isn’t that short,” and wants Peter to use his connections to recommend him.
Their plan backfires when the jilted Peter vengefully does the opposite. “This is your fault,” Tom snarls at his wife. But Chloe, whose frivolity the play has gone out of its way to establish (she likes to play “Angry Birds,” Tom mentions, and we see her reading “Twilight”), has more cards up her sleeve.
She turns to Jeannette Simpson (Linda Gehringer), the new Treasury secretary, whose twentysomething daughter, Rebecca (the lovely Rebecca Mozo), also plans to enter politics.
In Becque’s play, Jeannette is an influential but disreputable society woman, and her cabinet-level promotion here doesn’t quite make sense. Gehringer plays her as a giggly gossip fascinated (like everybody else) by Chloe; she seems to have all the time in the world to inquire over coffee about her new friend’s love affairs.
Still, the aimlessness of their conversation increases the surprise when Chloe takes it in a direction neither Jeannette nor the audience expects.
The true genre of “The Parisian Woman” may be mystery: What does Chloe want? She describes herself as cold, and Delany plays her as a cool customer indeed, with a quip always at the ready and never a silky auburn hair out of place or a genuine smile.
To advance Tom’s career she sacrifices many hearts, including possibly her own -- although it’s not clear whether she feels the emotions she claims. Does she even love Tom? She tells him so, but he replies, “The only time you lie to me is when you say those words.” Is she acting out of boredom then or the motiveless malignancy Coleridge ascribed to Iago?
MacKinnon’s staging is oddly subdued, cool and even clinical, contributing to the sense that we are being invited to study a character inspired to malevolence not by passion or political ambition but by … what? Her reasons are lost in translation.
[For the record, 6:10 p.m. April 23, 2013: A previous version of this post misspelled Dana Delany's last name as Delaney.]
“The Parisian Woman,” South Coast Repertory’s Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Sundays. Ticket prices vary. Ends May 5. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
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