The Parisian Woman by Beau Willimon
At the Hudson Theatre on 44th Street
BS Rating: D
Show-Score Rating: 50
“The Parisian Woman” offers its audience a fairly unique experience. Unfortunately, it’s not a very pleasurable sensation because the play and its production patronizes its audience. The production’s website describes it as “dark humor and drama collide at this pivotal moment in Chloe’s life [the title character], and in our nation’s, when the truth isn’t obvious and the stakes couldn’t be higher.” But the humor is anything but “dark” and the “high stakes” relate solely to a successful tax attorney’s efforts to secure an appointment to a federal district court.
The humor in the show, based on audience responses, occurs whenever there is a reference to Donald Trump. But these are not richly satirical lines; they are merely pandering to the frustrations of a liberal New York audience. “Public opinion doesn’t matter anymore,” declares one character. “If it’s good enough for the President, it’s good enough for me.” These lines get laughs, but this is not the sort of rich humor or insightful observations that make a political drama worth attention. They are nervous defense mechanisms that give the audience the illusion of understanding.
The play also portends to reflect the behind-the-scenes life styles and maneuverings of the Washington elite. This is not surprising since the playwright, Beau Willimon, is the creator of the highly successful television series, “House of Cards.” And like that series, the plot is full of sex (or more accurately, would-be sex), political intrigue, and betrayal. But this is not a TV series. We expect a Broadway political drama to provide some insight, some viewpoint that we have not previously considered. There is none of that in “The Parisian Woman’s” 90 minutes – full of very broad strokes of plot and stereotypical characterizations.
That is not to say that this short play does not arouse our interest in a number of its complications. The central couple, the conniving Chloe and her ambitious attorney husband Tom, have an open relationship in their marriage. Much of the first twenty minutes of the play focus on Chloe’s effort to end her affair with Peter, a self-centered banker whose helpless persona makes us wonder how he could have ever seduced Chloe into anything other than a polite “no thank you.” Chloe and Tom try to entice, Jeanette, POTUS’s recent appointment to Chair of the Federal Reserve, into helping Tom secure his judgeship. When Tom’s nomination seems to be almost lost, Chloe’s open relationships become the source of power in a plot twist that mirrors so many political dramas while pandering the liberal audience’s support for “non-traditional” relationships.
The box-office draw for this show is Uma Thurman’s debut on Broadway. On paper, it’s clear why a movie star who made her name as a hyper-sexual seductress in films like “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill” would be a perfect Chloe. She certainly looks the part. But there is nothing subtle about her performance and she is rarely able to project what is going on inside of her. Playwright Willimon deserves some of that blame – he touches on several interesting observations about a loyal wife who does not seek anything other than the success of her husband and her own earthly pleasures. But Willimon never provides anything other than hints of her inner life and Thurman does not fill in those blank spaces.
Josh Lucas as Tom faces similar challenges based on the limited character development that the playwright has provided. There’s plenty of possibilities – open marriage, a “fixer” tax lawyer, a man obsessed with making a mark – but they are not explored. I felt sorry for Marton Czokas who has to play a totally over-the-top lover of Chloe with writing that makes Cyrano de Bergerac look subtle. Blair Brown is in her element as the stereotypical Washington operative, Jeanette, who thinks she has everything that she wants. Phillipa Soo is believable as Jeanette’s ambitious daughter, although the play’s final plot twist requires her to evoke the audience’s empathy without enough development to make us care. Director Pam MacKinnon seems to have tried to cover up the play’s underdeveloped elements by encouraging the broadest possible performances from her actors. But the play’s 90 minutes seemed to pass very slowly, punctuated by nervous laughs at the mention of “The Donald.” So little about so much.