There’s a thrilling cat fight in Beau Willimon’s “The Parisian Woman,” being given its world premiere at South Coast Rep. It’s so good that it draws as much blood and potentially wounds as many reputations as Anne Baxter and Celeste Holm’s big powder-room confrontation in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve.” Willimon (“House of Cards,” “The Ides of March”) writes them like they used to, and that his comedy is “inspired by” a 1885 play only adds to the fun.
The inspiration is Henri Becque’s “La Parisienne,” which brought naturalism to the Paris stage, and Willimon effectively updates the story of an avaricious political wife to contempo Washington, D.C. The Becque play is little known today, but it’s possible that Edith Wharton saw or read it before writing her social-climbing Undine Spragg character for “The Custom of the Country.” Indeed, Chloe (Dana Delany) in “The Parisian Woman” wears stiletto heels like they were combat boots in order to get her husband, Tom (Steven Weber), nominated to be attorney general.
Delany has this habit of spending more time checking out the audience than she does the other actors. No mere act of vanity, it’s the right choice. For Willimon’s play to make sense, Chloe needs to seduce us as much as she does any character, male or female, on stage. And Delany does just that with great style, confidence and beauty, which is aided in no small degree by David Kay Mickelsen’s skin-tight costumes, as well as array of stiletto heels not seen since “Sex and the City.”
An interesting aspect of Pam MacKinnon’s astute direction is that Chloe’s husband, Tom, and lover, Peter (Steven Culp), recede a bit. They’re a little dense, opaque. Delany’s Chloe is always upstaging them, and she doesn’t really meet her match until the president’s nominee for secretary of the treasury, Jeanette (Linda Gehringer), enters the scene to foil Tom’s chances for his own nomination.
Chloe tells her husband not to worry; she’ll take care of Jeanette, and she does with Eve-like precision. Where Willimon betters Mankiewicz is that Jeanette is no Holm/Karen pushover. She’s nominated for the cabinet, and Gehringer exudes power at the highest level. In a nod, perhaps, to Holm/Karen, the cat fight begins innocently with Jeanette challenging Chloe’s status in D.C. How could someone so intelligent not pursue a career of her own? That’s when Chloe lets her know she’s content being just a wife. What ensues is something more than a good cat fight. Delany doesn’t claw, she pummels.
Is “The Parisian Woman” a great play? Probably not. But it is great fun.
The Parisian Woman
(Julianne Argyros Stage, 336 seats; Costa Mesa; $70 top)
A South Coast Repertory presentation of a play in one act by Beau Willimon. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Sets, Marion Williams; costumes, David Kay Mickelsen; lighting, Lap Chi Chu; sound, Cricket S. Myers. Opened April 19, 2013. Reviewed April 21. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.
With: Dana Delany, Steven Culp, Steven Weber, Linda Gehringer, Rebecca Mozo.