Uma Thurman displays a generous helping of je ne sais quoi in her Broadway debut as a femme fatale in The Parisian Woman, Beau Willimon’s political drama now playing at the Hudson. Inspired by a 19th century French drama, the play takes aim at the divisive politics of our time as a group of Washington insiders jockey for political position. At their center is the alluring and enigmatic Chloe (Thurman), a socialite with a ruthless attitude to love. With zingers ripped from the headlines, this juicy piece of theater for our times is by turns cynical, comic and poignant, despite some slightly clunky moments.
Henry Becque’s 1885 play scandalized French audiences with its piquant love triangle in which a married woman juggles a husband and lover. Willimon’s script takes this dynamic as his starting point and uses it to deliver a very unexpected and delicious twist, within the first few minutes of the play. There are other superb twists to come. We are in Chloe and Mark’s elegant D.C. sitting room – the set by Derek McLane captures the exact balance of a typical Washington mix of antiques and modern art. Mark (a chippy, authentic Josh Lucas), is a wheeler-dealer tax lawyer with a roster of well-connected but dodgy clients, “I’ve saved a lot of arses,” he quips. Chloe is an icy blonde more attuned to the political gamesmanship of the Capital than her spouse.
She is also apparently irresistible but Thurman’s fragile frame and brittle movements seem ill-suited to the role. We are expected to believe that she is a seductress par excellence who takes full advantage of her agreement with her husband to practice a “don’t tell unless asked” policy to their infidelities. But despite the Oscar-nominated star’s best efforts, there’s little heat between Thurman and her admirers.
Willimon’s inside the Beltway expertise, honed in part creating House of Cards for Netflix, is on full display as Mark maneuvers to be selected as a judge by the Trump administration. Chloe, despite her dislike of the president, plots to use her connections to help her husband’s cause in a town where favors are closely tallied. She casually mentions her husband’s ambitions in front of her friend Peter (Marton Csokas, a convincing, blustery egoist), an influential Republican donor with the president’s ear. When it looks like he might not help, Chloe grabs her friend, and Federal Reserve Chair nominee, Jeanette Simpson (Blair Brown) at a party to see if she can grease the wheels. Brown is on point as a gossipy and casually conniving D.C grande dame. She has nailed her future to the Trump administration despite reservations. “We can manage him,” she claims, but she cannot convince her daughter Rebecca (Phillipa Soo), a budding Democratic politician to switch sides. Rebecca, (Soo in earnest mode) is the play’s cipher for optimism about the future. She logically dismisses the failings of the new government as the older generation look to her to effect change.
However, Chloe’s machinations derail. In the oddest scene in the play, she and Mark discuss the state of their relationship, their childlessness, and his thwarted bid for the bench. Here, where it is needed most to elevate the drama, their lack of chemistry is apparent.
Late in the play, Chloe explains how she ended up with the nickname of “The Parisian Woman” but this contrived and superfluous monologue just detracts from what has been and what continues to be Chloe’s single-minded power play.
In an unsubtle bit of stagecraft, the acts are punctuated with an LED grid at the front of the stage with partial headlines scrolling across and characters intermittently appearing in doorways. The overall affect is to represent the frenetic nature of modern politics – an impression reinforced by the script’s ripped-from-the-headlines references to such issues as “locker room talk” and “fake news”.
The play was reworked recently from the original in light of real-life developments. As a portrait of our political times and the craven opportunism that fuels much of Washington, The Parisian Woman nails this moment. With a little more panache in direction and a reassessment of some unfortunate wardrobe choices for Uma Thurman (the other costumes by Jane Greenwood are spot on), this play would be a time capsule of our age – and despite some drawbacks, it is likely to become a reference text for future historians of our new normal.