Sleepy times, right? No drama emanating from our nation’s capital. Barely enough sensation to fill a single page of a broadsheet. Nary a shocking revelation to warm the cockles of a cynic’s heart.
Well, pine no more, scandalmongers. Into this yawning void comes “The Parisian Woman,” a drama by Beau Willimon at the Hudson Theatre that’s a steaming kettle of inside-the-Beltway intrigue. Ambition and deception, sex, betrayal and blackmail: It’s all here, wrapped up in a stylish package centering on the manipulations of the title character, a chic Washington housewife played by Uma Thurman, in her Broadway debut.
Willimon is best known as the creator of Netflix’s “House of Cards” (adapted from a British series of the same title). Fans of that show will find the elements that supplied its appeal on ample display in “The Parisian Woman” (albeit at a brisk 90 minutes): a mixture of old-fashioned soap suds and knowing repartee about the sharp cut-and-thrust among Washington elites as they jockey for money and power and sex, and more power.
Though Willimon’s play, inspired by Henri Becque’s “La Parisienne,” was originally seen in Southern California in 2013, it has been updated to reflect the particular politics of the moment. While he is referred to only in passing, Donald Trump’s presence in the White House (there is even a reference to “locker room talk”), and the Washington power brokers’ contemptuous attitude toward him (“We can manage him,” says a character at one point) provide much fodder for wry humor. Or grim humor, depending on your politics. (I don’t think Mike Pence will be dropping by anytime soon.)
The kernel of drama that sets the play in motion is the tantalizing possibility that Tom (Josh Lucas), who has long been married to Thurman’s Chloe, will land a seat as a judge on the court of appeals, a prime coup for a tax lawyer who has never tried a case. Thus far he has made his living helping Washington’s rich stash their money away from the government that many of them work for. Only in the current climate, as Tom observes, would someone like him be in the running for such a plum job. “It’s a touchy issue,” Tom says. “A tax lawyer, when the president still hasn’t shared his returns.” (Haha – or do I mean ugh?)
Tom implores their friend Peter (a fine, feverish Martin Csokas) to whisper in the ear of the commander-in-chief, to whom he has access. (Peter’s vocation is somewhat vague, but he’s a generous contributor to Republican causes.) But Chloe has more leverage with Peter: The soon-to-be divorced Peter and Chloe are lovers, though in the opening scene her bridling at his jealousy indicates that she has begun to sour on his charms, and her interests have begun to stray elsewhere.
Thurman, dressed in sleek suits, dresses and jumpsuits by Jane Greenwood, certainly has no trouble emanating the smoldering sensuality that would kindle sexual heat at a D.C. cocktail party – or any social function, for that matter. Playing a quasi-professional temptress, with one eye on the object of her current affections and the other searching the horizon for the next, she’s absolutely convincing as a practiced manipulator.
Unfortunately, Thurman, an often delicate film actor (as in “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Henry and June” if not, say, “Pulp Fiction”), proves unable to infuse her character with any more emotionally engaging shadings. Chloe’s ambition to land her husband the judge’s seat, at any price, drives the drama, and we are meant to see that her determination is itself fueled by inner demons relating to her own unfulfilled life. (She has neither pursued a career nor had children, and the title derives from a youthful love affair in Paris.) But Thurman’s performance has more than a whiff of archness and artifice about it; she shows us Chloe the operator in her many guises, from silken to sweetly savage, but the character never really seems to have much of a pulse, leaving the play with a glamorous void at its center.
Nor does there arise much intimate chemistry between Chloe and Tom, who is played with a simmering anxiety by Lucas. True, theirs is a marriage more of convenience than passion – Tom is perfectly happy to allow Chloe to dally outside the marriage – but Tom’s latecoming existential crisis, when he sees his grand dream slipping away, doesn’t stir much feeling either.
The appeal of the play, directed with a competent slickness by Pam MacKinnon, is its neatly laced-together plot, as well as, for Trump-o-phobes, Willimon’s many wry cracks about the state of the nation. (When Tom tells Peter that his nomination isn’t going through normal channels, Peter shrugs, “You never really know who’s running things these days.”) Tom and Chloe have a chance to further their campaign to land him the judgeship when they attend a party thrown by Jeanette (Blair Brown, both sharp and naturally human, as always), the new head of the Federal Reserve. There we also meet Jeanette’s daughter, Rebecca (the ardent Phillipa Soo), an idealistic young woman being groomed for a bright political future, who plays an unexpected role in the plot’s key twist.
Though the play’s attitude toward the current administration is hardly a warm embrace, Chloe – the only official Democrat on view – is not exactly a model of moral integrity. And Tom’s earnest avowals of wanting to gain the judgeship so he can more or less betray those who placed him there suggest that Willimon believes there’s no keeping your shoes clean when you’re trudging through a swamp.
But didn’t we know that already? Willimon’s sometimes glib cynicism eventually feels as obvious as the play’s more heavy-breathing passages in which various characters profess their fervent passion for Chloe. (“Presidents are assets,” says Peter to Chloe, “they exist to be bought, sold, and managed. That’s it. Don’t be so naive.”) While it may prove catnip, or at least cocktail party fodder, for the chattering classes inside and outside the Beltway, “The Parisian Woman” makes for only a mildly diverting evening at the theater.
In another era, perhaps its portrait of political maneuvering as genteel blood sport might be more engrossing. But with the endless tempests roiling Washington – and by extension the country – from day to day, Willimon’s play feels clever and literate, but also a bit tame, hardly the stuff of revelatory, or even continually compelling, drama. It’s a lap at the fictional shore when every day brings a new real-life tidal wave.
“The Parisian Woman” opened at the Hudson Theatre on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017.
Creative: Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Jane Greenwood; Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski; Sound Design by Broken Chord; Projection Design by Darrel Maloney; Hair Design by Tom Watson; Make-Up Design by Tommy Kurzman.
Producers: Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel, Steven Baruch, Steve Traxler, Grad/Ragy, Jam Theatricals, Gabrielle Palitzand Marvin Rosen/Eric Sutton; Produced in association with Andy Okoskyn/Ivanna de Benito, Peggy Hill, Terrence and Lori Street,Lucille Werlinich, Cecelia Joyce Johnson/Deep End Productions, Thomas Kranz/Robert Shelley and Joe Watson; Associate Producer: Jennifer Ashley Tepper.
Cast: Uma Thurman, Blair Brown, Marton Csokas, Josh Lucas, Phillipa Soo, Sydney Lemmon, Ron Menzel, Caris Vujcec.