Inspired by Henri Becque’s notorious 1885 La Parisienne, credited as the first Naturalistic French play, Willimon has taken its plot, characters and themes of sex, adultery, betrayal and power. To this he has added modern politics as it is being practiced in Trump’s Washington. Tom, a high-powered Beltway tax lawyer who works with both Democrats and Republicans, and Chloe, his socialite wife, are in an open marriage. While she is attempting to break up with her lover Peter, a banker, Tom asks for his help in getting the nomination for an appointment on the circuit court though he has never been a judge before. When it looks like Tom is no longer in the running, Chloe decides to act on her own and approaches her new friend Jeanette, the President’s choice for Chair of the Federal Reserve, a staunch Republican power broker and contributor. How this plays out shows the ins and outs of Washington negotiating. While none of this is particularly new, Willimon uses some of the latest contemporary wrinkles.
Part of the fun of the play are the zippy one liners that skewer the current political milieu as well as the name dropping for recognizable figures. Such lines as “Public opinion doesn’t matter anymore,” “Any job you know how to do isn’t a job worth doing,” “In the land of sinners, the whore is Queen,” and “In this town, honesty is a rare commodity” make us feel like Washington insiders, as do the references to General Kelly, Ivanka, Giuliani, and ultimately President Trump. There is some parody of the haves and the have mores, with Tom complaining “that you have to work very hard for this level of comfort,” while he envies banker Peter his lifestyle.
As Chloe, Thurman scintillates as she manipulates, cajoles and seduces all of the other characters before our eyes. We know her mind is always clicking ahead of the others but she never lets us know what she is thinking. Her beauty, poise and chic make us understand why she is desirable to the other characters, including political hostess Jeanette. She isn’t, however, able to make the accusation that Chloe is a hedonist and a dilettante go away. When asked why she has never run for office or pursued a career, she responds that she has been fulfilled by pleasure and beauty, and that “climbing the ladder” has never interested her. We are not meant to like her but to admire her. Costume designer Jane Greenwood has given her a series of simple solid color but elegant outfits for each of the play’s five scenes that define her lifestyle.
The problem with the casting is that the men are much less interesting than the women, and there is no sexual chemistry between Chloe and her men. Josh Lucas as Chloe’s husband is physically attractive but laid back in a rather bland way. Although he makes protestations of adoring her we see no evidence of it. On the other hand, we do not understand what she sees in her stuffy, uptight lover Peter played by Marton Csokas unless the point is that Chloe is only interested in people who can do her favors. Peter has the ear of the President and appears to be a power broker but as written he seems a bit of a bore.
The women’s roles are much better written and the actresses make the most of their opportunities. Veteran stage actress Blair Brown as hostess and power broker Jeanette Simpson is to the manner born, stylish, fashionable and assured. She carries herself like a woman of power and influence and makes all of her lines zing. As her daughter Rebecca, a recent graduate from Harvard law school, rising star Phillipa Soo (recently both “Natasha” and “Amelie”) is both impassioned and fierce, a woman who knows exactly where she is headed.
Derek McLane’s well-appointed townhouse living room setting with its mix of contemporary and antique furniture and good pictures will be the envy of most viewers, the sort of set one used to expect in drawing room comedy, while the others are equally elegant. The lighting by Peter Kaczorowski suitably accommodates itself to the play’s multiple settings from the living room of Chloe and Tom’s home at various times of day to Jeanette’s terrace during her dinner party to the coffee room of the Hay Adams Hotel. Greenwood puts both Brown and Soo in red which seems more than appropriate, though Soo’s character professes to be a Democrat.
Inspired by Henri Becque’s once shocking play, Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman twists itself into a pretzel to explain its title in its new Washington setting. With Uma Thurman in the title role, the play is excellent entertainment without being very memorable or impressive. However, we can well believe that appointments are made just the way that Willimon depicts them here and we can enjoy the zingers aimed at contemporary politics.
The Parisian Woman (through March 11, 2018)
The Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 855-801-5876 or visit http://www.parisianwomanbroadway.com
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Uma Thurman dazzles in a new political dramedy set in Washington from “House of Cards” and “Ides of March” author Beau Willimon.