The Parisian Woman
As we predicted nearly a year ago, the theater has become more political in the Trump era. Is that a good thing? You may not think so after seeing Beau Willimon's The Parisian Woman at the Hudson Theatre. This ripped-from-the-headlines melodrama stars Broadway debutant Uma Thurman in a plot as flimsy as a house of cards.
Willimon is the creator of the acclaimed Netflix series about Frank and Claire Underwood, a Washington power couple whose Machiavellian instincts carry them to the White House. Chloe (Thurman) and Tom (Josh Lucas) don't fly nearly as close to the sun: He's a prominent Washington tax attorney and she is his unemployed yet mysteriously well-connected wife. They have been collecting favors for two decades and think now is the time to cash in on them for an appointment to the federal bench. "I’ve never held a judgeship before. But these days…" Tom trails off and the audience completes his sentence with knowing laughter.
Chloe's lover, Peter (Marton Csokas), is a major political donor, so Tom asks him to put in a good word with the president. Yes, he's aware that his wife is sleeping with another man, but they have an arrangement about these things, so why not put that networking to good use? It's the same reason these urbane liberals are friends with Jeanette (Blair Brown), a Republican doyenne who is the incoming chair of the Federal Reserve. Jeanette's daughter, Rebecca (Phillipa Soo), is fresh out of Harvard Law and even though she's a Democrat, Jeanette is grooming her for a life in politics. As long as it's someone in your tribe wielding power, does it really matter if she's red or blue? The Parisian Woman might alternately be titled Scenes From the Swamp.
Such pessimism about our government is not just a product of the past year. Willimon premiered The Parisian Woman in 2013 at South Coast Repertory, back when "President Donald Trump" was still a punch line. It has undergone extensive rewrites to acknowledge the specific dysfunction of the current administration, but the theme remains consistent: Unscrupulous elites trade favors and sex in their quest for power.
Willimon writes plenty of juicy plots twists and stinging one-liners that make the audience howl. Still, most of the stage time is devoted to long scenes meant to humanize the characters, like when Tom pouts and swills scotch as Chloe lounges on the couch reading a vampire novel.
Pam MacKinnon's languid staging does little to energize these passages, and any momentum is downright thwarted by Derek McLane's lurching set. While it fully realizes several richly detailed locations — Peter Kaczorowski's natural light penetrating the sheer curtains of a D.C. townhouse impeccably suggests secrecy and privilege — it takes forever to transition. As we wait for the set to change, a massive wall of digital headlines (designed by Darrel Maloney) covers the stage, like a curtain of white noise. This seems meant to represent the media distraction that keeps us from grasping the plot lurking beneath, but it really just kills time. At least Jane Greenwood gets the wardrobe right with her Georgetown festive costumes (Jeanette's Drum Major Hillary pantsuit is fab).
This less than thrilling thriller is further hindered by some of the worst acting currently on a Broadway stage. Lucas is particularly wooden, allowing us to see the calculation in every hand movement and vocal inflection. "You know how good of a liar I am," he says at one point, and we respond with the cringe that derives from hearing someone's delusions spoken out loud. Next to him, the feinting-at-fatale Thurman seems almost natural, but she's not quite there, either. Brown manages to find a savory mischief in her character, while Soo is plausibly poised as a Potomac porphyrogenite. Meanwhile, Csokas brings a thirsty sleaze to his divorced banker character that feels on the money.
Unfortunately, The Parisian Woman is dramatic junk food at its best moments. We gasp at the intrigue and laugh (with ever-diminishing relish) at the perfunctory jabs at the President. None of it really sheds any light on this juncture in our republic. We begin to understand why Shakespeare chose subjects over a century old for his history plays: It is very difficult to have a clear perspective on history when you are living through it. The Parisian Woman is written to be a play for our time and in a sense, it is, especially if you believe this is an era of cheap cynicism masquerading as the truth.