Uma Thurman and Josh Lucas neither kill a dog nor bed an FBI agent in The Parisian Woman, a tame, tidy, talky and only superficially timely play about a D.C. power couple engaged in political intrigue. It is written by Beau Willimon, who is also the creator of Netflix’s more daring House of Cards, where for five seasons the Underwoods have killed and bed with abandon.
Willimon’s play borrows its title and a rough outline of its plot from La Parisienne, an 1885 French play by Henry Becque about a married woman and her two lovers that is said to have scandalized Paris. What passed for scandalous in 1885 seems not so much quaint as irrelevant in 2017, the year of “We take such accusations very seriously.” Even House of Cards seems more pertinent for what has happened behind the scenes; because of the accusations that Kevin Spacey is a serial sexual harasser, he and his character Frank Underwood reportedly have been erased from the sixth and final season, which is now scheduled to resume production early next year.
Willimon has told interviewers that he saw the election of Donald Trump in 2016 as an opportunity to update The Parisian Woman, which had debuted at South Coast Repertory in California in 2013, so that it better reflected the “paradigmatic shift in the country.” There are now some current references – to Ivanka and White House chief of staff John Kelly and Charlottesville – but they feel like checked boxes; there is little here that can count as substantive political or psychological insight into a new era. While there are some mild zingers, The Parisian Woman also seems likely to disappoint anybody hoping for the theatrical equivalent of an anti-Trump support group.
Theatergoers not bothered by these limitations, however, might find The Parisian Woman a diverting enough 90 minutes at the theater. The first scene offers something of a blueprint. Chloe, a glamorous socialite sheathed in Jane Greenwood’s costumes, enters her elegant Capitol Hill townhouse, designed by Derek McLane, to find Peter in the hallway, wracked with jealousy, wanting to know where she’s been, and asking to examine her phone.
Do you love me?
A little less every day.
Please – I’m serious
She tells him it’s not her fault people fall in love with her, and that he might be better off with somebody else.
“But it’s you I love,” he protests with ardor. “Don’t destroy that, Chloe. It’s easy to cheat…If you remain faithful to me – you keep your self-respect, you keep your dignity…”
Chloe interrupts him, having heard keys in the door. “It’s my husband.”
And so the first surprise: the fidelity-urging Peter, a politically connected banker portrayed by Marton Csokas, is Chloe’s lover, not her husband. Second surprise: Tom (Lucas), her husband, knows about his wife’s affair (though Peter doesn’t know he knows), and doesn’t care.
Tom, a rich tax lawyer, has other things on his mind. He wants to be appointed a federal judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Chloe, who has no job and spends her time reading trashy vampire novels and being pursued by people who fall in love with her, decides to help him. Her scheming involves her friend Jeanette (Blair Brown), who has just been appointed chair of the Federal Reserve, and Jeanette’s daughter (Phillipa Soo), a recent Harvard Law School graduate with ambitions for political office. I won’t explain further because, as in that first scene, it hinges on a surprise.
Uma Thurman is making her Broadway debut in The Parisian Woman (as is Marton Csokas.) As in her movie roles, she is a tall, graceful beauty; it’s not a great leap to believe that Chloe would be the object of desire for so many of the drab Washington types who surround her. There are moments, though, that reflect her lack of stage experience – a few weirdly literal gestures that feel a result of a helpful director’s suggestions rather than something organic to the character. There is also little to convince us that she is the vivacious hedonist of the script – that , as she tells Jeannette, she is only interested in pleasure and beauty.
“If pleasure and beauty is what you want,” Jeannette replies, “why live in Washington for heaven’s sake?”
“I’m fascinated by the politics. The artistry of it. The dance…”
“Well it’s less of a dance these days,” Jeannette replies. “More like a demolition derby.”
It’s a funny line, delivered by Blair Brown, the stand out in the cast, but it also pinpoints what’s missing from The Parisian Woman – any effort to present the wreckage.
The Parisian Woman is on stage at the Hudson Theater (141 West 44th St. New York, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, N.Y. 10036) through March 11, 2018.
Tickets and details
The Parisian Woman. Written by Beau Willimon; Directed by Pam McKinnon. Featuring Uma Thurman, Josh Lucas, Blair Brown, Marton Csokas and Phillipa Soo. Set design by Derek McLane, costume design by Jane Greenwood, lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, projection design by Daniel Maloney, sound design and composer Broken Chord. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.