Dana Delany: April in The Parisian Woman

By Deborah Behrens / April 17, 2013
Steven Culp, Dana Delany and Steven Weber in "The Parisian Woman." Photo by Ben Horak/SCR
For Francophile Dana Delany, being asked to star in the premiere of a play titled The Parisian Woman while doing a press tour in Paris seemed like divine intervention.

"Even as a little girl, I've always felt an affinity for France and specifically Paris," the 57-year old Body of Proof star explains one weeknight after a late March rehearsal at South Coast Repertory. Celebrity never held any appeal to her, but being famous in the City of Light did. "That's true!" Delany exclaims, when reminded of a remark she uttered to that effect on Jimmy Kimmel Live! last month.

"It's funny, my character is a lot like that, too. She doesn't really care about competition or being successful. She likes sensuality and she likes watching people and just being part of the dance. She doesn't need to be the center of it all."

The Parisian Woman was inspired by Henry Becque's La Parisienne. New York's Flea Theatre commissioned Beau Willimon ( House of Cards, Ides of March, Farragut North) to adapt the 1885 cause célèbre. The play was considered scandalous by Parisian audiences for its dispensing of traditional late 19th century theatricality. Becque had employed a naturalistic style to expose the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie.
Dana Delany. Photo by Brian Smith / Art & Soul
Willimon elaborates on SCR's blog: "He eschewed romance for obsession, he explored sex in terms of power rather than pure scintillation, and he tossed aside cartoonish archetypes and populated the play with three-dimensional souls. He did all this with biting wit and comedy…"

"The original was quite shocking at that time, which I love," Delany admits. "I think it's more farcical than our play. What's a real challenge about this, and I hope we pull it off, is there are a lot of different tones. There's some farce as well as some stuff that's really serious. And I think Beau wanted to play with that."

The painter Édouard Manet was a Becque contemporary and ignited similar scandals with his work in the decades prior to La Parisienne's debut. A copy of one of Manet's works now hangs in the SCR rehearsal room.

"I find that visual art for some reason translates in my head and helps me with my acting," Delany offers. "Beau explained that at the time this play came out, Manet was still shocking people with his paintings. I'm a big fan of Manet. I immediately said, 'Oh, my god! One of my favorite paintings is the perfect image for this play,' which is Le déjeuner sur l'herbe [The Luncheon on the Grass]. We got a copy of it and put it up on the rehearsal room wall. It's a famous image of two men in suits having a picnic in a park with a naked woman. There's another woman in the background wading in the water.

"That to me is Chloë — the naked woman sitting there between two men."

As reimagined by Willimon, Chloë is now one half of a Washington, D.C. power couple. The two of them pursue every angle at their disposal to get corporate lawyer husband Tom (Steven Weber) a shot at becoming Attorney General. The character is described by South Coast publicity as "A social über-operator armed with charm, wit and sensuality….who eschews the everyday rules of polite society unapologetically and pragmatically, in favor of getting what she wants." Steven Culp, Linda Gehringer and Rebecca Mozo round out the cast.

When it's suggested that the role seems tailor-made for her, Delany laughs heartily. "Oh, they'll wind up casting it with Annette Bening on Broadway."
Édouard Manet's "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe"
She nearly passed on doing the piece. Her agent sent the script last February during a whirlwind press tour in Europe. Delany promised to read it on the return flight — so she could turn it down. The series star had worked non-stop since the summer and needed a vacation. But as soon as she started reading, she was hooked.

"The writing was so good," Delany explains. "I'd seen Farragut North at the Atlantic Theatre Company in 2008" [it had its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in 2009]. "Chris Noth and Olivia Thirlby, who I knew, were in it." Both actors recurred in the Geffen production. "I said to Chris, 'this guy is really good.' And he said, 'I know, he's definitely someone to watch.' The play became the movie Ides of March and now he's got House of Cards."

Fast forward to Delany deplaning in New York with plans to tell The Parisian Woman's director Pam McKinnon (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Clybourne Park, Extraordinary Chambers) that she's too tired.

"We met for coffee, and the minute Pam walked in I said, 'wait a minute, do I know you?' And she said, 'Yeah, I was Dan Sullivan's assistant on Dinner With Friends.'" Delany replaced Lisa Emery during the 2000 run of Donald Margulies' Pulitzer Prize winner at the Variety Arts Theatre in New York. The play was remounted that fall at the Geffen Playhouse with Delany, Rita Wilson, Kevin Kilner and Daniel Stern. South Coast Repertory had commissioned the work and presented the West Coast premiere of it in 1998.

"I said, 'Oh my god! I remember!" Delany continues. "I liked you and you are now this big star director.' I remember her being so smart and so calm and so decent. We talked over coffee, and I said, 'Oh boy, I think I'm going to have to do this.' The only reason I thought twice about it is because I have not had a break since last August. But this play was worth it to me. I said to Pam, 'I'm going to be a little tired, just so you know.'"
Dana Delany and Steven Weber in "The Parisian Woman." Photo by Ben Horak/SCR
So what has it been like working with McKinnon 13 years after Dinner With Friends?

"I would love to work with Pam in every production!" she laughs. "She's just a great captain. I've never seen her get rattled once. You can't panic when you are around Pam because she's so calm and it's all about, 'take your time, we'll find it. Just be honest and the rest will follow.' I really appreciate that because I don't do theater all the time. I think my fear is well, theater is different, and I need help because I'm so used to doing television now. And it really comes down to just find the truth, you know? Like you do in anything."

Willimon participated at the beginning of the rehearsal process and has physically stepped in and out as time permits, given that House of Cards recently started production. According to Delany, McKinnon confers with him nightly over proposed changes to the script and new pages arrive in a constant flow.

"Beau's one of those people that can work 24 hours a day, I think," she posits. "He's really quick and obviously extremely smart but very self-effacing. No airs whatsoever. Like Pam. He's funny and nice. The play is very different from when I first read it to what it is now. The character is very different. Today we got new pages so I think it's going to keep changing right down to the wire. It's just fun to be part of the process."

As a board member of both the Ojai Playwrights Conference and New York Stage and Film, Delany understands what a rare opportunity it is to work on a play with a team of this caliber at a respected theater. The Parisian Woman is one of two fully produced works for SCR's 2013 Pacific Playwrights Festival. Noah Haidle's Smokefall is the other. This year's festival also includes readings of five new plays from Carla Ching, Jordan Harrison, Michael Hollinger, Gregory S Moss and Zoe Kazan from April 26-28.

"The theater itself is unbelievable," Delany admires. "And the fact that they really appreciate the developmental process. That's really what South Coast Rep is about and they completely support you. It's just been great to be part of this. I haven't been down here a lot but I saw Dan Sullivan's production of Donald Marguiles' Brooklyn Boy, The Whale, and a Kate Whoriskey production of Antigone."

The Whale star Matthew Arkin coincidentally played Delany's husband in the 2000 NYC Dinner With Friends production. What are the odds that the two would be in back-to-back productions in the same theater? "I know! That was wonderful and a big achievement for him to pull off."
Dana Delany and Victor Slezak in Neil LaBute's "Things We Said Today" at Ensemble Studio Theatre's 2007 Marathon of Short Plays. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
It's been six years since Delany participated in a production outside of staged readings. The last was the premiere of Neil LaBute's one-act Things We Said Today, directed by Andrew McCarthy at Ensemble Studio Theater's 2007 Marathon of Short Plays. Desperate Housewives cast her as Katharine Mayfair during the production and she flew west to start a new TV era when it was over.

She admits that carrying a show in which she never leaves the stage is a bit daunting, as are the nightly script changes.

"This script is 96 pages long and I'm talking in 93," she reveals. "I do not leave the stage except for scene changes. I said to myself, 'Look, I learn eight pages a night [for Body of Proof], you know?' So I should be okay but it's different. Because you are not learning eight pages, you are learning 20 pages. I don't have it yet, but once I get it all it will be great. Right now I'm in that stage of half in, half out."

From Broadway to the Odyssey

Delany is most widely recognized for her more than three decades of non-stop film work (Freelancers, Light Sleeper, Exit to Eden, Tombstone), TV movies (Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story), miniseries (Wild Palms, True Women), series television (China Beach, Presidio Med, Kidnapped, Desperate Housewives) and the voice of Lois Lane in numerous animated series. But it was theater that brought the NYC native to LA and helped launch her West Coast career.

She grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Ma. during her senior year of high school and graduated from Wesleyan University with a theater degree. Her parents took her often to see theater in Manhattan. The Lionel Bart musical Oliver! was the first Broadway show she saw at age eight, directed by Peter Coe. The Citadel Theatre and subsequent American Shakespeare Theatre artistic director would later helm Delany's 1980 Broadway debut in Hugh Leonard's Irish play, A Life.

"I got to go the theater a lot as a kid," she recalls. "I didn't really know how special that was at the time. I saw all of these early great musicals and I love musicals. I absolutely love them."

After graduation, Delany found work in daytime soaps like As the World Turns and Love of Life while auditioning for stage roles. She landed the part in A Life by faking an Irish accent she learned while listening to Siobhán McKenna read Molly Bloom's speech from James Joyce's Ulysses on a LP purchased from an Irish bookstore. Delany had never heard one before.
Dana Delany in "China Beach" and "Body of Proof" (ABC/Richard Foreman).
"I just kept lifting the needle and putting it down," she explains. "Lifting the needle and putting it down, which is how I memorized all the words to Funny Girl when I was a kid!" She laughs. "That's how I learned all the words to every musical I went to. Lift the needle and put it down."

Delany confesses that she wasn't good at accents and had to maintain the one she'd concocted on her own all the way to the theater. "I talked to the cab driver in the Irish accent, I stayed in the Irish accent backstage and I did the audition in this Irish accent. Then Peter Coe comes down to the edge of the stage and asks me, 'Where did you get your Irish accent?' I remembered people in acting class saying you should always lie. So in this bad Irish accent, I tell him my Irish grandfather taught me since I was a 'wee one.'

"My family has been in the United States since I think 1820. My grandfather was born in Brooklyn in 1885. He did not have an Irish accent."

Delany believes Coe cast her because she looked like a younger version of her fellow cast member Helen Stenborg, which the part required, rather than for her impeccable mimicry. Of her Broadway debut at 24, she admits, "It was extremely exciting and intimidating because I had all the enthusiasm in the world and none of the technique." It was a poignant time as well, since her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at 56 and would die three months after opening night.

"We were in Edmonton, Alberta for rehearsals [at Coe's Citadel Theatre] and I got a phone call that my father was dying. I called him and said, 'I'll come home. I'll leave the show. I want to be with you.' And he said, "No. I want you to continue with the rehearsals. I want to see you make your Broadway debut.' So I did and he got to see me perform on Broadway."

Five years later, Delany was cast as Manya in the 1983 Off-Broadway premiere of Nicholas Kazan's brutal crime drama Blood Moon, directed by Allen R. Belknap and co-starring David Canary and Nicholas Saunders. The play brought her critical acclaim and the opportunity to reprise the role in the subsequent 1985 Odyssey Theatre production directed by Frank Condon opposite Michael MacRae and Greg Lewis.
Michael MacRae, Dany Delany and Greg Lewis in the May 1985 Odyssey Theatre production of "Blood Moon."
"That's when my career started taking off," she admits. "After A Life, I went back to class and started working hard at it to really develop a technique. So when I finally got to Blood Moon, I had more of a sense of what I was doing. Nick Kazan and I are still good friends. It was a really exciting part. A lot of people came to see it. When it was going to be done at the Odyssey, Nick said come to LA and do it there. I've been in LA ever since. I didn't want to come out until I had a job. So, yes, theater brought me here. Isn't that funny?"

Hollywood saw the show and came calling. She got cast as everyone's girl friend until China Beach launched Delany as a bona fide TV star garnering two Emmys, plus two Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for playing Army nurse Colleen McMurphy. Numerous film and TV offers followed and Delany would not return to Broadway until 1995 in another Irish play — Brian Friel's Translations opposite Brian Dennehy and Rufus Sewell. It closed after 25 performances.

"A beautiful, beautiful play, but the production did not do it justice unfortunately," she sighs. "You know it just happens and I wrote Brian Friel a note afterward. I apologized for the play not achieving what it should have. And myself. He wrote me the most beautiful note back. He said it should have been produced Off-Broadway, which is true. It's such a delicate play. The space was too big for it. It has that wonderful Irish ambivalence and ambiguity that you have to let play. You have to lean into that and I don't think the production did.

"Then he wrote, 'Never apologize. In the words of Tyrone Guthrie, Rise above my dear, rise above.' He was so sweet and he made me feel so much better."

Much Ado About Dinner With Friends

It would take a Pulitzer-winning play to return Delany to Los Angeles theater but not before being asked by its playwright to join the New York production in the summer of 2000.

"I remember seeing Dana on stage decades ago in a Nick Kazan play in New York and being impressed by her," writes Dinner with Friends scribe Donald Marguiles via email. "That would have been shortly before she was deployed to China Beach and became a television star. When Lisa Emery left the original cast of Dinner with Friends, she was on [director] Dan Sullivan's and my list of replacements. Luckily for us, she was available and willing to step into the role. Dana is the prettiest girl in class who surprises you because it turns out she's nicer than you'd ever imagine."
Kevin Kilner and Dana Delany in the 2000 Geffen Playhouse production of "Dinner With Friends." Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Delany played Kate opposite Matthew Arkin as Tom, with Caroline McCormick as Beth (who replaced Julie White) and Kevin Kilner as Gabe. Rita Wilson saw the piece and lobbied Gil Cates to bring it to the Geffen Playhouse, which initiated Delany's close friendship with the late producing director and his beloved Westwood theater. "I miss him so much. He was just so special."

Dinner opened in October 2000 with Wilson now as Kate and Daniel Stern as Tom, Delany as Beth with Kevin Kilner reprising as Gabe. Delany is the only actor to have played both Kate and Beth, something she says she never intended to do.

"It [Beth] is actually the harder role to do," she explains. "I had seen what Caroline went through in New York. I think I had a week in between the two productions, so when Rita was saying her lines I kept hearing them echo in my head. That was what was so odd. I knew her lines but I didn't know my lines. I'm so happy I did Beth because I feel like I cracked something in that role that has always been very intimidating to me — real crying on stage and also be funny. I finally figured it out and then I couldn't wait to go to the theater every night."

Delany credits director Sullivan with teaching her how to feel more confident on stage. Prior to Dinner she'd felt as if the audiences were judging her. She learned to have fun by involving them in an energetic give-and-take exchange while acting from a more natural place.

"It was such a revelation to me to work with him on that play because I had the gift of watching Lisa's performance," she offers. "Basically I watched what she did and it was so good that I kind of copied it and then eventually made it my own. With Dan, like Pam, it's just so matter of fact and down to earth. Straightforward. That's how I approach my work and there's no 'theatrical' behavior. I think that's what a lot of young people have a problem with in theater today. It can be theatrical and they don't relate to it."

Three years later, Sullivan suggested Delany to director Brendan Fox for Beatrice in his 2003 mounting of Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Globe in San Diego. She had never performed Shakespeare before. It terrified her.
Billy Campbell and Dana Delany in the 2003 Old Globe Theatre production of "Much Ado About Nothing," directed by Brendon Fox. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
"I said, 'Are you kidding me? Why? I've never done Shakespeare!' and he said, 'I think you can do it' and it was great. Daunting but fun. Billy [Campbell who played Benedick] and I have remained such close friends since then. He's one of my dearest friends now."

In 2006, Delany was slated to play Goneril in a King Lear production at the Electric Lodge in Venice, helmed by famed British vocal coach and Shakespeare scholar Patsy Rodenburg making her international directing debut. It starred Robert Mandan as the titular lead and Diane Venora as the Fool. TV projects called Delany away. She's studied with Rodenburg since and really wants to explore more works of the Bard.

"I'd like to do Shakespeare again because it would be such a challenge," she offers. "And of course I don't like the typical plays. I like Antony and Cleopatra. Troilus and Cressida. I like the odd ones."

Championing Women Writers

Delany's bi-coastal lifestyle — homes in Santa Monica and Greenwich Village – allows her to keep a finger on the pulse of new play development both at Ojai Playwrights Conference (OPC) and New York Stage and Film. As a board member, she doesn't just participate in readings but shares her TV success by supporting female writers financially as well.

"I love seeing plays in development,"
she stresses. "That's my favorite part of the whole thing. I feel very fortunate to make money in television and I just want to support good writing. Especially women writers. Because if there's no good writing, I don't have a job!" She laughs. "I'm a female lead on a television show and we have a room full of male writers. It's ridiculous. And more women need to be supported because they now are experienced, you know?

"I think it's a different voice that we need."

Delany got involved at OPC in 2002 when playwright Jon Robin Baitz asked her to participate in a reading of The Paris Letter. She knew both Baitz and OPC artistic director Robert Egan previously and from that beginning would go on to become a major supporter, board member and honoree at OPC's 2012 annual benefit.
Dana Delany and Robert Egan at the 2013 Ojai Playwrights Conference Benefit.
"Dana Delany is one of those rare theatrical quadruple threats for the Ojai Playwrights Conference and new play development in America," states Egan via email. "She has wisdom, grace and great emotional depth on stage. She is also a perceptive and supportive board member…bringing valuable community and industry resources to the development of new plays for America. She is also an extraordinarily generous philanthropist for the development of new drama and has underwritten the workshop of numerous new plays by some of our most promising women writers over the last ten years.

"And finally, Dana is a great audience member for new theatrical work. Despite her enormously busy schedule, you can find her at every OPC workshop each summer in the front row supporting the writers, the actors and the artistic staff in their efforts to bring new perspectives to the human condition. Dana is a rare and totally delightful collaborator in all of her varied roles supporting new theater in the United States."

"Oh my god, I'll have to thank him!" exclaims a stunned Delany. "That is true. My favorite job is the audience member. I love it.

"I tell everybody that it's my favorite weekend of the year,"
she declares. "I don't want to be part of it. I just want to watch. I start with the first production and I just go all day long. I watch play after play and it's so exciting because they're at the beginning stages when it's just fresh and new. The atmosphere is completely supportive. That's where I met Linda Gehringer, who's in our play."

Recent OPC workshops supported by Delany include Sarah Treem's When We Were Young and Unafraid in 2011 and Jennifer Haley's Sustainable Living in 2012.

The LA-based Haley, who recently enjoyed critical success with The Nether at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, says she was invited to come to the festival last year at this time. After two intense weeks of rehearsing Sustainable Living in 105-degree Ojai heat and the performance itself, she was introduced to Delany.
Dana Delany, Linda Gehringer and Rebecca Mozo in "The Parisian Woman." Photo by Henry Dirocco/SCR
"They were like, 'and here's the person who made all of this happen!'" she laughs via phone. "It was kind of a thrilling moment. I did feel a sense of sisterhood in that here's a woman who has really built an incredible career now giving another woman a leg up. That kind of stuff makes all the difference in the world."

Haley aspires to emulate Delany's philanthropy herself in the future. "I'm looking forward to eventually transitioning into that person who's able to help other people. I do that to a certain extent with the Playwrights Union, this group I run. But being able to help someone financially and to help their play financially is a big deal."

When asked whether she has a bucket list of classical or even musical roles, Delany offers up Tennessee Williams women like faded femme fatale Blanche DuBois or performing a one-night only cabaret act for friends. Regardless, she's comfortable now in her own theatrical skin.

"I don't feel like I have to perform anymore. I have more life experience. I don't have to make it up. When I have an emotional moment, it's there. You just tap into it. Whereas when I was younger, I felt like I had to create things and use my imagination more.

"I've had every one of the experiences I'm acting out now."