All photos courtesy of Henry DiRocco/SCR.
The world premiere of The Parisian Woman, written by Beau Willimon (inspired by Henri Becque's La Parisienne), directed by Pam MacKinnon for South Coast Rep, doesn't just enact the ambition, maneuvering, and dirty tricks you associate with political life in Washington, D.C. It takes it one step further, turning an no holds barred campaign to secure an Attorney General nomination into a fascinating portrait of a bored Beltway wife. Think of it as a cross between Dangerous Liaisons and Sex in the City. Willimon's script is riveting and MacKinnon's superbly acted production is witty, startling, and thoughtful.
It's late fall in the nation's capitol. Tom (Steven Weber), a private practice lawyer, is married to Chloe (Dana Delany). As a team, they are formidable and in synch. They are wealthy, connected, and ambitious. They are J. Crew gorgeous, especially Chloe, who is effortlessly chic and sexy. But then, so is everyone else in that environment, which makes Tom's goal, to get the nomination, that much more difficult. He's done all the right things to achieve this long-held goal. He's stayed out of trouble and he's kept influential people out of jail. Like other likeminded souls, he may have the smarts, the looks, and the credits he's accrued in the favor bank. Unlike the others, though, he has a secret weapon, the guiles of his wife whose goal, so we think, parallels his.
She has no problem conducting an affair with the influential, rich and, as it happens, hapless Peter (Steven Culp). Tom doesn't, either - it's just the cost of doing business. Peter has access to the President's Chief of Staff and can thus influence the Attorney General nomination, which is the stated reason behind Chloe's adultery. But Chloe spurns him because, silly boy, he's fallen in love with her. When Peter disses Tom to the Chief of Staff, all seems lost.
But is it? Chloe pulls out the heavy artillery. So heavy that she can't even tell Tom. Tom trusts her and away she goes, blackmailing Rebecca (Rebecca Mozo), the daughter of the Secretary of the Treasury nominee, Jeanette (Linda Gehringer). The result? Tom got the nomination.
If it were just about the securing of the nomination, it would be a compelling Beltway thriller. But layer on the spectacular character of Chloe, spectacular because of Delany's performance, and you've got a memorable production that seems plot-driven but is really a profile of a Washington, D.C. wife with a few secrets of her own.
Willimon's script is both lighthearted and devious, which makes it all the more chilling. The action focuses on the swath Chloe cuts through the obstacles that could thwart her husband's nomination. She's intelligent, savvy, and bored. Do these affairs serve as a means to Tom's end or do they provide her with a deeper satisfaction? That's what's so fascinating about the production. Everyone around her is playing chummy cigar store chess while she's playing at a grandmaster level on a cut throat national stage.
It's important that the team of Chloe and Tom is portrayed as credible. With Delany's seeming adoration for her husband and Weber's implicit trust in her, they function as a taut, well-armed commando unit. Delany's Chloe is magnificent. On two separate occasions she draws audible gasps from the audience. In a climactic meeting with Jeanette, she is so terse, so lethal, that she seems to psychologically stab the Treasury nominee in the heart before we even know the weapon's been drawn. You'd like to see a sequel eight or so years in the future, with Tom's new goal: the Presidency. Chloe as First Lady? Wow.
Culp and Mozo do well with Peter and Rebecca, who may be otherwise intelligent but are putty in the hands of Chloe. Rebecca, bless her young soul, has no clue what's going on behind the scenes. Gehringer gives a nice portrayal of an old school Washington politico who, having attended the right schools, having made the right connections, serves as the exquisite foil to street fighting Chloe.
It's said that otherwise qualified candidates won't run for public office anymore because of the scrutiny into their public lives. The Parisian Woman gives another reason - the things you have to do to get it.
Performances are 7:45pm, Tuesday - Saturday and 2pm, Saturday and Sunday. The show runs until May 5. Tickets are $20 - $52. The Julianne Argyros Stage is located at 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA 92626. For more information call (714) 708-5555 or visit www.scr.org