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Diana Quick in The Woman Destroyed
(Photo © Christine Allsopp)
Apparently, New York theater is currently so chockablock with special attractions that the local debut of a world-class English actress can go relatively unnoticed amid the general hullabaloo. The debutante is Diana Quick, whom locals perhaps know from her role as Lady Julia in the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.

It may be that Quick, whose name suggests a significant aspect of her talent, isn't properly recognized here because she's so busy on the English stage that she's had no time to come to the States. In the last couple of years alone, she's appeared with astonishing results as Jean Rhys in Polly Teale's After Mrs. Rochester and in Helen Edmundson's Mother Teresa is Dead, two plays yet to be seen on these shores to the loss of the local theatergoing audience. She's toured in Ghosts and won at least one award for her efforts -- and that doesn't take into account her television showings. (Quick's romantic alliances might have landed her in domestic gossip columns more often had she associated herself with three American actors and not the three British actors with whom she's been linked over the years: Kenneth Cranham, Albert Finney, and Bill Nighy, to whom she's currently hitched.)

Perhaps because she has waited too long for plays in which she's been acclaimed to be imported with her along for the ride, Quick concluded the way to go was creating a one-woman show for herself. She certainly wouldn't have been the first to do that. So she delved into Simone de Beauvoir's 1967 collection of novellas, La Femme Rompue, and found, appropriately enough, Monologue, which she's translated as The Woman Destroyed (a rough version of de Beauvoir's umbrella title for the collection) and moved to the first annual Brits Off Broadway drama festival.

The actress knew what she was doing. The Woman Destroyed is the vociferous ramblings of a French woman home alone on New Year's Eve, 1970. The epigraph de Beauvoir affixed before the piece is one of Gustave Flaubert's remarks, "She takes her revenge through the monologue." And Flaubert, as Madame Bovary enthusiasts understand, knew a good deal about bored, restless, angry women. Which is what Murielle is -- and more -- as she finds difficulty keeping still in her well-appointed apartment overlooking what seems to be a major Paris boulevard. (Set designer Metka Kosak found the chaise longue and two period chairs that suggest one Louis or another; sound designer Neil Gavin keeps the traffic flowing and an upstairs party raving; Duncan Coombe designed the lighting, which may be somewhat excessive.)

It's one of the wonders of theater that characters can be brought on stage with whom no one in the audience would want to spend time but whose unappealing behavior is fascinating to watch from a safe remove -- the kind of person you can't take your eyes from when they're not looking back and refuse to lock eyes with when they're trying to engage you. Murielle is one such relentlessly off-putting personage. Estranged from husband Tristan, she's in a custody battle with him over their son, Francis. She's also estranged from her mother, and she's still in mourning for her daughter Sylvie, whom she's not convinced she might have saved had she gotten out of bed earlier on the unfortunate day of her suicide.

Cut off from the world like Cole Porter's society dame down in the depths on the 90th floor, Murielle talks uncontrollably about the situation. The trying woman also dresses as might that lady on the 90th floor: she wears a black cocktail dress with marabou or something like it at the hem. (The frock may be Albert Nipon's creation, since he's thanked in the credits.) Her jewelry -- dangling earrings, bracelets, rings -- are flashier than the streetlights against which the curtains are repeatedly drawn and pulled back. She's worked a hairpiece into her elaborate '60s coiffeur and removes it as she becomes increasingly undone internally as well. She wears intricate net stockings. All of it fashionable, if not stylish, in 1970, none of it helping.

Murielle is an infinitely sad woman who, as Pedro Almodovar might put it, is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As she unburdens herself, she reveals no redeeming qualities. She's shallow. De Beauvoir's achievement, however, is in capturing a woman who's profoundly shallow; she hasn't a joyful bone in her body or a positive thought in her head. "Sleep is the only good thing about being alive," she says. "How do you keep yourself clean in a world gone rotten?" she demands to know. She lights incense and waves the stick under the noses of patrons in the front row; later she shows them family pictures. She fantasizes about writing a book; she fantasizes about shaming her alienated friends and family. She shuttles between despair and vindictive triumph. She prays to God that she and her children can laugh as the rest of their world goes up in flames around them.

Just as de Beauvoir gets Murielle down on the page, Quick -- who has translated pretty much the entire piece into British vernacular -- gets Murielle up on the stage. Slimmer in her younger days with dark good looks, the actress is still dark and has the angular features that can be beautiful one moment and plain the next. But now she's voluptuous, an English Anna Magnani. (What a Serafina della Rose she'd make were someone savvy enough to sign her for Tennessee Williams's Rose Tattoo.) During the hour-plus soliloquy, she's mercurial. Directed imaginatively by Richard Cottrell, she ruminates from chair to chaise longue, rarely alighting. Such constant movement in many plays of the solo sort can seem a diversionary tactic: Keep the actor on the run so the audience doesn't have time to think about only watching one person emote. In The Woman Destroyed, the activity is warranted. Murielle can not, in contemporary 12-step parlance, sit with her feelings. She has to reach for the phone or rearrange the roses or fuss with her earrings or bang a plump pillow into place. At one point, she declares she's "fed up" and then repeats the phrase maybe a hundred times. Quick turns the segment into a tour de force within a tour de force. It's sustained madness.

Among theater professionals, there's a phrase for actors who can pick up a play and learn their lines in one reading -- or almost that fast: He or she is a quick study. A Woman Destroyed, however, recasts the phrase. It's a Quick study, and it's enthralling.

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