Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman — a riff on 19th-century French naturalist Henri Becque’s scandalous drawing-room comedy about a sexually liberated socialite, La Parisienne — had its premiere at South Coast Repertory in 2013. Remember 2013? We got a new pope from Argentina. Kate Middleton had a baby. So did Kim Kardashian. House of Cards premiered on Netflix. Oh yeah, and Obama was president. To quote Luke Skywalker, it’s all such a long way from here. Nevertheless, The Parisian Woman is back onstage, lounging at the Hudson Theatre after a makeover for the age of Twitter and Trump. But despite high wattage both onstage and off (Uma Thurman is our present-day Parisienne and Willimon created House of Cards), the results are not sparkly but wooden and smug. In attempting to walk the line between classic sexual intrigue and contemporary political resonance, The Parisian Woman falls flat on both counts, delivering yet another lamely apologetic, latently self-satisfied slog through the worldview of an ostensibly liberal white dude.
The play has left the Seine behind and now takes place on the banks of the Potomac. In a ritzy Washington, D.C., townhouse live a high-powered, workaholic tax attorney, Tom (Josh Lucas), and his beautiful wife Chloe (Thurman), a woman who spends her days doing, well, not much. She makes appearances at social functions, wears designer clothes, reads teenage vampire novels on the designer sofa, and keeps a couple of lovers on tap. (Of the four remaining characters in the play, Chloe is sleeping with three. If that’s a spoiler, sorry, but trust me — it doesn’t exactly come as a surprise.)
Everyone’s in love with Chloe — people can’t take their eyes off her. They hang on her every word. At any given dinner party she’s got the “the whole table in the palm of her hand.” We know these things not because anything charismatic is happening onstage but because the script tells us so. It’s bad luck for Thurman: On film she’s a fascinating and often powerful actor, but here in her Broadway debut, she can’t transcend the flatness of the material she’s been given. She’s not bad, but neither does she generate the electricity that a character like Chloe demands. Her performance is straightforward, even a bit subdued — far from the aggressive badassery and engrossing strangeness of, say, her role in Kill Bill.
I don’t blame her, though. She and her castmates are battling their way through dialogue that, despite coming from the creator of one of the most lauded TV dramas in recent years, feels surprisingly monotonous and frequently stilted. The play opens with a clunky, extraneous pair of greetings (“Hello.” “Hey.”) between Chloe and her lover Peter (Marton Csokas) and only gets more awkward from there. I kept waiting for something to break: Surely this labored feeling must be intentional somehow? But The Parisian Woman lumbers on, aspiring to Sorkin-esque zing and snap, but in fact piling one heavy platitude on top of another: “Once you stop trusting me, what do we have left?”; “You’ve accomplished so much, but you’re still so down to earth”; “What mark did I make on the world?”; “Maybe this once … I can have a purpose.”
The story, such as it is, follows Chloe’s attempts to influence the powers that be in order to win her husband a newly open judgeship on the Fourth Circuit Court. She seduces, she befriends, she blackmails. Yet she still doesn’t feel particularly powerful. “I’m someone who’s been lost,” she says more than once, in what feels like a soppy attempt by Willimon to increase his heroine’s sympathy factor. The result is to blur Chloe’s edges, lessen her bite. Despite having spent time in her youth living la vie bohème in a literal garret in Paris with a moody French boy named Phillipe (this hackneyed blast from her past supplies the nickname her husband uses for her and the play’s title), Chloe’s been stripped of the luxuriant, unapologetic sense of liberation associated with the heroine-villains of the great French sex dramas. She’s no Marquise de Merteuil — and I would have welcomed a shot of such wit and wickedness. But Willimon seems to think that we won’t want an actually Nasty Woman for a protagonist. Moreover, he undermines the supposedly feminist center of his play by having her perpetuate dumb patriarchal stereotypes: “This is the first time you’ve been attractive in months,” Chloe tells Peter near the play’s end, after he bellows at her that he’s not “some toy to be played with.” Ah yes. Now that he’s thumping his chest like a real man, she finds him sexy again. Swoon.
It’s as if Willimon’s play is embarrassed by its own liberalism, which eventually creeps out of hiding, but not before we’ve been treated to an overdose of white male privilege and trite attempts at topical humor. “Locker-room talk,” “fake news,” the president’s Twitter habits — Willimon checks all the requisite joke boxes, and it’s frankly depressing to listen to chunks of the audience willingly laughing along with each lazy setup. Though, when I attended, the laughter was never riotous. Instead, it almost felt Pavlovian, automated. Insert Trump joke here. Chuckles to follow.
A dull complacency weighs down the whole play. Chloe spends a lot of time working her way into the good graces of Jeanette Simpson, the Trump-appointed-but-fictional chair of the Federal Reserve, portrayed with tough geniality by Blair Brown. Though Jeanette is most likely a nod to Janet Yellen, her politics are decidedly right of the aisle. Jeanette is a phlegmatic, old-school conservative, given to tut-tut-ing the political panic spawned by her boss. “Everyone needs to calm down,” she tells Chloe, “We’re going to keep the country moving forward. Everything’s okay. We can manage him.” And later: “Everyone will keep holding the line … He’ll come around and do what he’s told … The country is in good hands.” Jeannette — in bickering with her whip-smart, liberal, Harvard law graduate of a daughter, Rebecca — even visits that oldest and most maddening of political proverbs upon us: “If you’re not a Democrat when you’re young, you don’t have a heart. If you’re not a Republican when you’re old, you don’t have a brain.” (Do we really have to hear this not-so-harmless truism trotted out on a big New York stage again this fall?)
My guess is that Willimon thinks that he’s satirizing Jeanette’s blasé endorsement of the status quo, but wittingly or not, he’s giving power to that repeated chorus of “Everything is okay.” He lets us off the hook with Jeanette, and with Chloe, too. Though Chloe eventually admits to her own complacency, the confession is a cop-out. “My generation — we … or me at least … I didn’t do enough,” she tells Rebecca, “We stood by and watched it all happen. You need to fix it.” Willimon is only 40, but, to steal Rebecca’s words, he seems to be working through some “sort of mid-life guilt” — and, ultimately, giving up. Easier to saddle the play’s only female character under 30 with the responsibility of fixing the world.
Rebecca is the playwright’s attempt to get down with the #Resist crowd, and it’s not too surprising that as the only character with anything resembling uncompromised integrity, Phillipa Soo (of Hamilton fame) gives the play’s most appealing performance. She has to deliver her fair share of clunkers just like everyone else, but at least she’s throwing herself into the role with an eager, natural sincerity. Her Rebecca is open-hearted and open-eyed enough to help The Parisian Woman achieve the second of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous rules for writing fiction: Give the audience at least one character to root for. Too bad the play itself doesn’t follow the first one: Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
There’s a certain breed of superficially woke men out there right now who, like Jeanette, just want everyone to “calm down,” who hang around at cocktail parties and assure you that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” They crack jokes about Trump and wear shirts that say “The Future Is Female” without actually bothering to interrogate their own privilege or presumptions. The Parisian Woman clearly aspires to be a part of the force that’s “fighting that fucker” in the White House, but its perspective is too blinkered and its voice too stale to make it much of a contender.