For anyone who prayed this year for a smart and complex drama about Life Under President Trump, to help explain how we got here and how we get out, The Parisian Woman will be a thudding disappointment. The 2013 play, revised by author Beau Willimon to reflect the current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, is wooden, plodding and insular. People in Washington D.C. close to the levers of powers can behave in ethically murky ways. Who’d-a thunk it?
The 95-minute dramedy is inspired by Henri Becque’s 1895 boulevard comedy La Parisienne, which may be why some dialogue comes across as stagy and canned. “Find a way to escape from your mother in Paris when you can,” D.C. socialite Chloe (Uma Thurman) urges young Rebecca (Phillipa Soo). “Have an adventure or two. … Take a few moments to be young before you launch this extraordinary life of yours.” Thurman’s bland, stilted delivery does not help; every line that comes out of the film star’s mouth sounds like an Activia voiceover.
Willimon was showrunner on TV’s House of Cards. Like the Netflix series, The Parisian Woman is a Beltway tale that centers on a power couple with limber morals. Chloe is a Trump-loathing liberal who leapfrogs over lovers to advance the career of her husband, Tom (a suitably smarmy Josh Lucas). Tom’s a successful tax lawyer who longs for a judicial appointment to the Federal bench, but not because he’s a right-wing ideologue. Quite the opposite: “Imagine what I could do,” Tom tells a gob-smacked Chloe. “Gerrymandering. Voter suppression. Ethics. Common fucking decency. They’d think they were stacking the circuit, but I’d push it the other way.” Why has Tom never shared his master plan with his wife? She gossips! This kind of contrivance might have worked in 1895 France, but in a contemporary frame, it’s practically sexist.
Not that Chloe has much of a personality to be offended. She takes lovers. She reads trashy vampire novels. She goes to parties. This is the sort of play where, the more time you spend with the characters, the less you feel you know them or care about what they want. The other figures in this suspense-free story of backroom (and bedroom) maneuvering include Jeanette Simpson (Blair Brown), presumptive chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, and Peter (Martin Csokas), a weaselly British banker and RNC donor who has the president’s ear. Both are convenient steppingstones as Chloe works to push Tom’s nomination to the fore. The idea that our nation’s capital is a fetid swamp of incompetence, greed and sex scandals will come as a surprise only to recently revived coma patients.
On a purely visual level, director Pam MacKinnon’s tight production offers lots of eye candy to relieve the boredom of the dialogue. Set designer Derek McLane’s sumptuous interiors should prompt spasms of real-estate envy. Jane Greenwood’s outfits are flattering and chic. Darrel Maloney devises digital projections to beguile the eye during scene changes. And Peter Kaczorowki’s lights keep everything looking solid and handsome. It’s one of the best-looking and -sounding straight plays on Broadway this fall.
It’s just not that clever or insightful. I look across the pond and see the British dealing with the fallout from Brexit, scouring their souls, beating their chests theatrically. The prodigious playwright Mike Bartlett (King Charles III) has a show at the Almeida Theatre called Albion that almost sounds a parody of the English “state of the nation” play. (A long-abandoned, much-contested garden occupies the allegorical center.) I’m perfectly aware that hot-off-the-presses political theater can be didactic or dreary, but I still hope our best writers (Lynn Nottage, Ayad Akhtar, J.T. Rogers) can wrestle with our historical moment and find great – or at least good – drama. Because glib pandering such as The Parisian Woman will always be yesterday’s news.
David Cote is a theater critic, journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.