Uma Thurman and Marton Csokas in ‘The Parisian Woman.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Beau Willimon, creator of House of Cards—the popular series about a callous political couple who end up in the White House—has also written several dramas about cold-blooded political and business dealings, including Farragut North (made into the film Ides of March) and Breathing Time.
He continues this pattern in The Parisian Woman, a 90-minute work “inspired” by Henri Becque’s 1885 French play, La Parisienne, examining the lengths to which a beautiful Washington socialite, Chloe (Uma Thurman, in her Broadway debut) will go to further her husband’s career. What might have been little more than a faintly entertaining, old-fashioned, politically-themed, boulevard dramedy gets some extra mileage by being updated to Washington during the first year of the Trump administration.
Trump’s name is mentioned only near the end, but the stream of references, including names like Kelly and Mattis, and mentions of tweeting and fake news, make it clear it’s his ear Chloe wishes to reach. Her goal: to get her husband, Tom (Josh Lucas), a tax lawyer, appointed to a federal judgeship.
There’s some left-leaning pleasure in having Trump continually jabbed at in a Broadway play (as apart from a diatribe like Michael Moore’s The Terms of My Surrender), but little is new and even less very funny. Take Trump away and the play collapses.
We first meet the elegant, beautifully dressed Chloe (thanks to the tasteful designs of the inimitable Jane Greenwood) in her smartly appointed parlor where we’re led to believe the man she’s bickering with is her husband; when the latter does enter, we discover, in a coup de théâtre taken directly from Becque, it’s her jealous lover, Peter (Martin Ckokas).
The play then balances the open marriage arrangements of Chloe, whose affair with Peter is tolerated by Tom, with her finagling on Tom’s behalf with not only Peter but Jeanette Simpson (Blair Brown), Trump’s nominee to head the Federal Reserve. Jeanette, an earthy, friendly, gossip-loving woman, who enjoys Chloe’s friendship despite their differing political views, has a daughter, Rebecca (Phillip Soo), a Harvard Law graduate with political ambitions of her own.
If you know Becque’s play, you’ll realize how Willimon has altered the original situation to provide yet another surprise in Chloe’s web of deceit. When, after chatting about the Parisian romance of her youth that gives the play its title, she slowly ensnares Jeanette in a blackmail scheme to help Tom’s cause, Chloe resembles no one so much as Claire Underwood at her most ruthless on “House of Cards.”
Each character has a different political stance. Tom would seem to be a Republican because he makes his money by helping conservatives avoid paying taxes. But, given the play’s emphasis on deception and lies, all is not what it appears to be. Unfortunately, the scene where Tom explains to Chloe his motivations for seeking the judgeship is as phony as Congress’s pending tax bill.
Peter donates heavily to the Republicans but his politics, too, are based purely on self-serving motives. Jeannette is definitely a Republican, albeit a moderate one, who believes she and others like her can control the president. Rebecca is a liberal, as is Chloe, although the play provides no room for the kind of fireworks we expect of a Carville-Matalin marriage.
Interestingly, in a play so preoccupied with Trump-bashing, the most despicable character is the liberal Chloe. In her big scene with Jeanette, we see this self-assured, manipulator—who’s never had a career of her own, choosing instead a life of “pleasure and beauty”—unexpectedly take her Machiavellian talents to a level barely hinted at before. The sole committed Republican, Jeanette, gains even a liberal audience’s sympathy, while the liberal becomes the villain. And that villainy is unsupported by nearly everything else we’ve seen in her.
Pam McKinnon directs with finesse on attractive sets, lit by Peter Kaczorowski and designed by Derek McLane, representing a drawing room, a mansion’s balcony, and a café. The scenes are separated by an electrified curtain showing computerized, zipper-style, partial headlines, designed by Darrel Maloney.
Uma Thurman, long, lean, and lovely, captures Chloe’s cool, calculating glamor but doesn’t go too far in showing deeper feelings. Josh Lucas as her accommodating husband and Martin Csokas as her obsessively jealous lover are acceptable although the latter is such a boor one wonders how Chloe has put up with him so long. Phillipa Soo makes what she can of her two-dimensional role while Blair Brown is vivacious as a future head of the Fed, despite her thoughtless bandying of words like “socialist” and “radical.”
If anything anti-Trump raises your temperature, The Parisian Woman may be enough. For similar subject matter that never mentions POTUS’s name but dives deeper into the swamp, there’s always House of Cards (at least for now).
The Parisian Woman
141 W. 44th St., NYC
Through March 11
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).