Beau Willimon, the playwright of The Parisian Woman, is best-known for creating Netflix’s House of Cards, and so the play’s Washington, D.C., setting—and the corridors of soft power the characters inhabit in designer Derek McLane’s delightfully plush sets—a town house, the long balcony of a grand party, and a smart ladies-who-lunch venue—feel very familiar.
First, we find ourselves in the home of Chloe (Uma Thurman, in her Broadway debut) and what seems like her husband Peter (Marton Csokas). Except this, as much else in the play, is not at it seems. Tom (Josh Lucas) is Chloe’s husband, she is having an affair with Peter—and, like everything else she does, Chloe likes to think she is in control of it.
She carries herself with a commanding grace. Her voice has a clotted, booming quality. She lays down the law, waspishly trades barbs, seduces, and casts aside. But what does she want, and what is she prepared to give to take it?
The emotions evident behind what Thurman said in her recent interview, when asked about sexual abuse and harassment, are given a many-hued dramatic outlet here.
Her character wants power. To what end is the mystery. Willimon’s play feels market-fresh, stuffed as it is with references to Donald Trump, and the jockeying of the ambitious to attain power. Tom is set to become a judge, and he claims he will act as in thrall to the Trump agenda as he needs to if it helps him get on to the bench to then affect real change.
His idealism seems true, but in Chloe, who is monstrous and charming all at once, we see how power corrupts. The powerful politician Jeanette (Blair Brown) is as incredulous as we are that Chloe doesn’t already have an official Washington job, or do something professionally impressive because she emerges as the ultimate operator here.
Willimon sets the action in the absolute present day, and this is the Washington of Trump, and the Republican cynics who dislike him and who must cleave to him for professional advancement. Their easy deals with the devil to make sense of this, and to make sense of their ambition, are sad to listen to. (And likely, in their jaundiced sarcasm, very true.)
The D.C. of today that Willimon imagines is one where cowardice has met opportunism, with its practitioners—here symbolized in Tom—telling themselves they will defy the president if given the lever of power they are desperately reaching for. Will they? That is left unanswered. You almost appreciate the more naked amorality of Peter, who is really out for himself and, in Csokas’ brilliant incarnation, unwilling to suffer the mental affliction of any moral ambiguities.
Chloe, meanwhile, knows exactly what she wants from her personal life—and that isn’t just to balance Peter and Tom, but there is also a third object of her passion. And that third object of her passion, a twist in the play, will ultimately allow us to see Chloe at her steeliest, as she seeks to blackmail to secure her husband’s professional ascendancy.
Thurman’s performance is truly intriguing: Physically and verbally, you are never quite sure which direction she will go in. Under Pam MacKinnon’s tight direction, Thurman slinks, stomps, charms, cajoles, threatens, and sometimes, fleetingly, she is upset. (But really, this is only fleetingly.) It’s a performance that feels a little unpredictable and roughened, as if we are watching Chloe outwit not just her adversaries but also her own frazzled nerves and unseen demons.
The title refers to a period of her life when true change, true love, truly something of another life, was possible. That happened in Paris, and it happened when she was much younger. (A small dramatic note: After this and Meteor Shower, can playwrights stop using homosexuality as a mechanism of simple sensationalism and shock, when in 2017 it really isn’t, and it shouldn’t be.)
Chloe’s experience is one she tries to impart to another young woman, Rebecca (Phillipa Soo), who seems to be set on a much more conventional course. But what has happened to Chloe’s sense of adventure and belief in passion? It has become warped and burnished by Washington, and her marriage.
This she has allowed to happen, while inserting as much passion and unpredictability as she can into what otherwise would be a politically focused marriage. But there is love she feels for Tom, and he for her, even if we witness it too late. And, she insists, she feels things for her other two objects of lust, passion, and interest.
Chloe also has a consummate sense of control, and to watch that in practice—as when she aces the more traditionally powerful Jeanette—shows that, for Willimon, the true power in Washington, the true nexus of deal-making, betrayal, ambition, and heartbreak, happens far away from the floor of the Senate.
The Parisian Woman is at the Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th St., NYC. Book tickets here.