Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 30, 2017
The Parisian Woman by Beau Willimon. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Set design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Projection design by Darrel Maloney. Sound design and original composition by Broken Chord. Hair design by Tom Watson. Make-up design by Tommy Kurzman.
Cast: Uma Thurman, Marton Csokas, Josh Lucas, Blair Brown, Phillipa Soo.
Ms. Thurman is Chloe, a woman who claims to have no political or career ambitions of her own but lives for "pleasure and beauty." When we first meet her, she is having a tiresome conversation with an exceedingly jealous man, Peter (a petulant Marton Csokas), whom we first take for her husband but who actually is an about-to-be-discarded lover. Things are complicated by the fact that Peter may be in a position to influence the appointment of Chloe's actual husband, Tom (Josh Lucas), to an important federal judgeship.
Chloe's own political leanings are decidedly to the left of center, which puts her at odds with the current in-crowd, but which provides fodder for the playwright to include shorthand references to cultural memes like Tweeting ("if it's good enough for the President, it's good enough for me"), "fake news," and "locker room talk." Such throwaway lines succeed at eliciting knowing chuckles and a smattering of applause from the audience, but they don't do much to propel the plot, which veers too often from the central question of how Chloe will manage to manipulate those in power to benefit her and Tom.
To this end, Chloe has earmarked Jeanette (an appealing Blair Brown, the only one who seems to fully grasp the way a political melodrama ought to be played), a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and the nominee to chair the Federal Reserve. Despite their political differences, the two women hit it off, and the single most dramatic scene, the spider-and-the-fly moment, occurs late in the 90-minute play when the two meet for coffee and conversation.
That moment is a humdinger, and Ms. Thurman and Ms. Brown play it to the hilt. When Chloe springs her well-prepared trap, it leaves Jeanette completely flummoxed. Up to that point, the star and director Pam MacKinnon have worked very hard to keep things low-key, perhaps in order to magnify that singular explosive effect. Chloe is generally seen as very protective of her emotions; she says she has learned over the years "how not to miss people once I've said goodbye to them." The only time she displays any real warmth is when she dreamily recalls a love affair with a young Frenchman back when she was in her 20s (this is the source of the play's title, a nickname given to her by Tom). The way in which she distances herself might be psychologically interesting, but it does make one wonder what it is, other than her looks, that makes Chloe the pretender to the "Whore Queen" throne? What about her is so attractive, so seductive, to everyone (men and women) she comes into contact with, they are willing to drop their defenses against a known political opposite?
Blair Brown shows us how the affable if wary Jeanette can fall into a casual friendship with Chloe. While she is a tad gossipy in that Washington-insider sort of way, she falls into Chloe's snare through no fault of her own. Of the rest of the cast, Mr. Lucas comes off as a decent sort who willingly accepts his wife's peccadillos as part of their personal "don't ask, don't tell" agreement, especially if it will land him that coveted judgeship. As Chloe's erstwhile lover, Mr. Csokas, is mostly whiny and impotent; when he storms off in the end, the best he can come up with to preserve a shred of dignity is: "And don't send me any Christmas cards!" Also appearing and making the best of a small but significant role is Phillipa Soo as Jeanette's daughter, a young woman with political ambitions of her own.
Overall, there is simply not enough meat on the bones of The Parisian Woman to justify waiting for its delicious gotcha scene. If you find your mind wandering from time to time, you might just want to let your eyes drift over Derek McLane's lovely set design, which gives you an insider's view of the interior of those Capitol Hill townhouses that few of us will ever step inside.