Hudson Theatre, New York
November 30, 2017
Despite the recent, swift expulsion of Kevin Spacey and question marks over its future, few would deny that – aside from the daily spectacle of Trump’s White House – House of Cards is the political drama of the last decade. The Netfix hit was the brainchild of playwright and film producer Beau Willimon, whose work as a volunteer and intern for Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaigns, plus the presidential tilts of Bill Bradley and Howard Dean, furnished him with a truckload of experience in the wicked ways of the Swamp. Somehow, while masterminding the dirty doings of the Underwood campaign, Willimon found he had enough leftover insights into power, passion and politics to pen The Parisian Woman for its first outing at South Coast Repertory back in 2013. Now his play has found its way to Broadway, boasting a starry cast and with added Trump. But can it ever measure up to Francis and Claire?
Josh Lucas as Tom and Uma Thurman as Chloe in The Parisian Woman. Photo © Matthew Murphy
Perhaps that’s an unfair question given the play’s origins. Back in 1885, Henry-François Becque’s La Parisienne was the kind of Naturalist tract that prefigured naughty fin de siècle novels like Zola’s Nana and duly shocked its public by depicting a married woman with not one lover – which obviously every Frenchwoman might reasonably be expected to maintain – but two. And while Becque’s original does have a political dimension (insomuch as his free-thinking Clotilde du Mesnil takes on her second lover to further the administrative career of her complacent husband), La Parisienne is really a commentary on sexual moral hypocrisy, not a satire on governmental sleaze.
Willimon’s bright idea, sound enough in itself, is to translate much of Becque’s plot to modern-day Washington, upping the sexual shock factor of his five-hander play by switching the gender of one of the two lovers. Clotilde becomes Chloe (cool as a cucumber Uma Thurman), the fascinating but borderline bored wife of the oleaginous Tom (a wolfish Josh Lucas). The latter’s solid, if uninspiring career as a tax lawyer suddenly catches fire when, against all logic, he becomes a potential Trump pick for a vacant Fourth Circuit judgeship. After all, as Jeanette, lifelong Republican and Trump’s choice for the Federal Reserve, observes, “any job you know how to do isn’t a job worth doing”. To which Chloe replies, “The President is proof, huh?”. And so it goes. The Trump jabs come thick and fast, liberally interspersed with references to current administration bugaboos like John F Kelly and co.
Where Willimon really scores is in his portrait of Chloe, known as ‘The Parisian Woman’ for her somewhat brutal education in the transience of love following a failed dalliance in the French capital with an over-emotive student novelist (“That bed got a real work-out. We made love morning, noon, all night long”). In fact, damage limitation has taught Chloe not just to surround herself with emotional walls, she’s become so adept at sporting masks that the audience is genuinely surprised when she flips from plain amoral to ambitiously ruthless in one of the play’s two most successful scenes.
Uma Thurman as Chloe and Blair Brown as Jeanette in The Parisian Woman. Photo © Matthew Murphy
And yet, just as there’s something hollow deep in the heart of Chloe, there’s something empty at the centre of the play. Unlike House of Cards, which brilliantly deploys theatrical devices like direct address to heighten an essentially naturalist drama, The Parisian Woman generally fails to rise above the level of soap opera or sitcom with all of those genres’ clunky artificiality. Where political serial killers Francis and Claire wield a razor-sharp rapier, leaving as much unsaid as spoken, second-raters Chloe and Tom brandish a bludgeon in scenes of conventional verbosity. And for all that he deserves a roasting, Trump really is too easy a target. It isn’t that Willimon can’t write convincing dialogue – the confrontation when Chloe tosses a bombshell into the political and familial plans of Blair Brown’s dry as a Martini Jeanette is proof of that. But he’s too often content to let a cypher stand in for something more believable, particularly when it comes to two-dimensional Tom, and Chloe’s stuffed-shirt British banker lover, Peter. A pity, because truth – and where would we be without it – is one of the play’s more important themes.
Thurman, in what surprisingly turns out to be her Broadway debut, puts in a creditable performance as Chloe. She keeps us guessing until the end, managing the transition from sophisticated lady with a heart of ice to world-weary woman staring into the void. Chloe may be irredeemably bourgeois, but she comes with the chilly aristocratic poise of a Claire Underwood, and Thurman imbues her with an element of the old truism that ‘behind every great man is a great woman’. Brown (familiar of late for her portrayal of a celebrity chef turned jailbird in Orange is the New Black) impresses too, skillfully commanding Jeanette’s trajectory from “Everything’s okay. We can manage the President” Republican to lioness defending threatened cub. Phillipa Soo (Tony nominated for playing Elizabeth Schuyler in Hamilton) is the third strong woman here, playing a 25-year-old rising star Democrat with a game plan to take her all the way to the presidency. Stronger on the emotional vulnerability than on the ruthless ambition, she nevertheless brings an idealistic veracity to her long scene with the cynical yet damaged Chloe, a quality that is too often missing elsewhere.
Lucas’s vulpine Tom is nicely finessed, world weary after decades of palm-greasing and accumulating professional favours, while comfortably complicit in his wife’s affairs. If he ultimately rings hollow, perhaps that is because he is. Marton Csokas (well known to Australian audiences as Cate Blanchett’s pointy-eared partner in Lord of the Rings, as well as Sydney stage appearances in Andrew Upton’s Riflemind and Benedict Andrews’ staging of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) makes prissy Trump-whisperer Peter into a suitably duplicitous bounder with all the sex appeal of a wet haddock. Sadly, with no character arc and a never really explained English accent, there’s little opportunity for the actor to shine.
Uma Thurman as Chloe, Blair Brown as Jeanette and Phillipa Soo as Rebecca in The Parisian Woman. Photo © Matthew Murphy
Derek McLane’s finely-observed Georgetown drawing room gives way against a hi-tech front cloth to Jeanette’s balcony and a hotel lounge. It does the job and is effectively set off by Peter Kaczorowski’s functional lighting and Jane Greenwood’s straightforward costumes. If a sense of souped-up repertory theatre betrays the play’s origins, director Pam MacKinnon (who was responsible for the first staging in 2013) never really lifts matters beyond the mundane, offering little in the way of insight. Despite assurances that the play has been entirely revamped to reflect the current political climate, the Trumpisms still feel tacked on, adding no more than the occasional frisson and the odd chance to chuckle at a presidential putdown.
At 90 minutes straight through, The Parisian Woman is a pleasant enough evening for a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat and (disappointingly) one that probably won’t upset too many Republicans. But come curtain down, you can’t help wishing Willimon and MacKinnon had brandished more of the cold steel and theatrical chutzpah of the Underwoods.
The Parisian Woman is at Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street until March 11, 2018