REVIEW: “The Parisian Woman”—a Trump-era play no one asked for
The personal is the political in Beau Willimon’s “The Parisian Woman”, which opened tonight on Broadway.
That’s hardly surprising, given Mr. Willimon’s pedigree as creator of “House of Cards” and playwright of “Farragut North”. What is surprising, though, is the artificial bluntness of the dialogue, the contrivance of the plot and comedy, and the insufferability of both the characters and the play’s myriad topical references.
I’ve worked in politics for over a decade, and even I tired of 90 minutes with these people. I’ve also lived through the past year, and I don’t find much of it funny.
“The Parisian Woman” takes place today. Or yesterday. Or maybe even tomorrow. In the opening minutes, there are references to Hurricane Maria and the tax reform bill currently under debate in the U.S. Senate. Jokes about President Trump pepper the script, as do references to “Steve” (Bannon) and “Kelly” (White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly).
Uma Thurman makes her Broadway debut in this star vehicle, playing Chloe. She is not in fact French, as the title might suggest, but rather a D.C. housewife who fills her time with mechanical charity work, trashy vampire novels, scene-y dinner parties, tawdry gossip, and hot affairs. Notwithstanding her stated disinterest in politics, Chloe is a smart and shrewd manipulator who plays the game as good as or even better than the pros—and always gets what she wants.
[It’s difficult to explain the plot without giving away too much, so skip the next paragraph if you don’t want spoilers.]
Her husband, Tom (Josh Lucas), is a successful tax attorney angling for a Trump Administration appointment to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, despite his lack of judicial experience (if ever there was an administration where experience didn’t matter). Her not-so-secret boyfriend, Peter (Marton Csokas), is a high-powered businessman who wields his considerable cash for political influence and counts both Trump and Clinton as friends. Her newest acquaintance, Jeanette (Blair Brown), is a Republican fundraising doyenne who has just been nominated Chair of the Federal Reserve. And her secret girlfriend, Rebecca (Phillipa Soo), is a 25-year-old graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law about to embark on a promising political career; she also has a boyfriend, is Jeanette’s daughter, and is a Democrat.
The fate of these friends, lovers, and enemies intertwine with their politics and their own power-oriented machinations across five scenes and 90 minutes.
“The Parisian Woman” had its premiere in 2013 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California. Inspired by the somewhat obscure French comedic play “La Parisienne” (1885) by Henry Becque, the version now on Broadway has been extensively re-written, such that “it’s a different play” according to the playwright, and one very much in response “to the present moment”. In fact, word on the street is that Mr. Willimon plans to change the play’s references as current events unfold during the run. Sounds fun for audiences, and not so fun for the actors.
I did not see and I have not read the play that premiered in 2013, but I have no doubt that the decision to re-work it and to set it so firmly in 2017 cheapens the dramatic and political resonance it might otherwise possess. The experience of seeing this play reminded me of watching Oliver Stone’s “W.” (2008) while George W. Bush was still president. In brief: too soon, man.
Imagine everything you hate about politics—the dysfunction, the elitism, the phoniness, and the games—distill it to a five-character stage play, and you’ve got “The Parisian Woman”. What’s more, imagine everything you hate about this political moment, and put it on stage. Yep.
There is something oddly satisfying about observing a New York theatre audience slowly realize it is watching a play about a bunch of Trump-era Republicans and Republican sympathizers. Maybe my own politics irredeemably color my view, but the characters in this play are unremarkable and uninteresting, morally stained, and, for the most part, off-putting and unbelievable.
I am not intimately familiar with Mr. Willimon’s oeuvre, but the sense I glean from its permeation into our zeitgeist is that it cynically nurses our nihilistic impulse to decry the state of politics, further aiding the erosion of popular faith in the very institutions necessary to protect our democracy and safeguard our values and freedoms.
That might sound dramatic, but at a certain point, our obsession with a scandal-laced, morally and ethically bankrupt political fiction compromises our reality, inuring us to the real scandal gripping our nation and feeding the devolution it most-charitably sets out to critique and most-cynically sets out to exploit.
Just as I wrote after seeing Ayad Akhtar’s “Junk”, it is not the playwright’s job to cure our nation’s ills, but whether accepted or not, the playwright does play a role in our national discourse, and that carries responsibility.
There is no doubt that Mr. Willimon is a talented writer—the influence he’s had upon our culture speaks for itself—but “The Parisian Woman” is not his best work.
Isolated cackles rang out from corners of the theatre from some attendees who were blissfully having the time of their lives; otherwise, I mostly observed silence and sighs. One woman kept hissing at every mention of President Trump. Another said aloud, at full voice, “this is disgusting”.
I wouldn’t go that far. To me, the greatest sin of the play is that it is mostly boring and implausible, despite its all-too-real milieu. The excellent first scene sets up an intriguing story that proceeds to sputter and fall flat by scene five, which was comically trite. The more I learned about the characters, the less I liked them. And the topical references kept pulling me out of the story. None of Trump’s unacceptable behavior is funny so long as he sits in the Oval Office. To make it fodder for jokes feels irresponsible.
I am not sure what Mr. Willimon set out to say in this play that hasn’t already been said, but the greatest revelations I had while watching it are that a living room in robin-egg blue can be quite beautiful (that’s thanks to the handsome sets by Derek McLane) and Ms. Thurman is as striking in person as she is on film. Like the rest of the cast, however, the material she’s been given is not equal to her talent. The look of resignation on her face at curtain call said it all.
Bottom Line: “The Parisian Woman” with Uma Thurman is a heavy handed and humorless political comedy that takes place now and captures everything we hate about politics, and the Trump era in one 90-minute, 5-person play. Skip it, and watch the news instead.
“The Parisian Woman”
141 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: November 30, 2017
Final Performance: March 11, 2018