Monday, December 11, 2017

The Parisian Woman: Those Devious Politicos

Uma Thurman and Blair Brown in The Parisian Woman. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The last time I saw Uma Thurman, she appeared, in a remarkable ensemble, in the 2015 NBC miniseries The Slap, which deserved more attention than it got. Now she’s starring in a new Broadway play, Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman, and at forty-seven she looks more beautiful than ever – that long, sleek frame, that sculpted goddess’s face. She hasn’t done much previous stage work (she played Célimène in a production of Molière’s The Misanthrope at Classic Stage Company in 1999), but she seems just as comfortable on the stage of the Hudson Theatre as she does on camera, and, with Jane Greenwood’s elegant dresses dripping off her, her presence is mesmerizing.

The play opens with a scene between Thurman’s character, Chloe, and an anxious banker named Peter (Marton Csokas), which focuses on his jealousy and her efforts to assure him that he has nothing to be jealous about. The exchange ends with an undercutting of our expectations: it turns out that she’s married to another man, an ambitious D.C. tax lawyer, Tom (Josh Lucas), who is hoping to land a circuit judgeship in the new administration and who knows all about her affair. (They have an open marriage.) The double switch is amusing, and you think you’re in the realm of satirical high comedy set among the Washington elite in the age of Trump. But though the references are up to the minute, Willimon, who wrote Farragut North and co-adapted it for George Clooney’s movie version, The Ides of March, and created the Netflix series House of Cards, is less a satirist than a writer of melodramas. That’s the reason I didn’t get very far in House of Cards – I admired the work of some of the actors, but it seemed arch and rigged, and the Brechtian touch of having Kevin Spacey address the camera felt hopelessly inauthentic, a comment on its own cleverness more than on the action. Besides, having already seen Spacey play Richard III (on stage at the Old Vic in London), I didn’t feel the need to see him do it again. 

The Parisian Woman, like the three episodes I watched of House of Cards, is pseudo-clever. Willimon has reworked an 1885 boulevard play, scandalous in its day, called La Parisienne by Henri-François Becque, which was filmed in 1957 with Charles Boyer and Brigitte Bardot. (The movie shows up occasionally on TMC.) The idea of this rewrite is that Chloe and Tom are the quintessential D.C. power couple, so charming and seductive, so deft at working a room, that the fact that they are liberals and Tom is trying to make an entrée into a Republican administration hardly makes a difference. “I keep forgetting you’re a Democrat,” Chloe’s new friend Jeanette (Blair Brown), the nominee for head of the Federal Reserve, says with a chuckle during one of their tête-à-têtes. The play is about loyalty and betrayal in a high-stakes political game. When Chloe disappoints Peter, who is obsessed with her, promising him the kind of passionate night they enjoyed in the long-gone early days of their liaison and then failing to show up, he gets back at her by undermining Tom’s plans for advancement, but Chloe has an ace up her sleeve that involves a well-kept secret and blackmail. What is supposed to deepen the scenario is how much Chloe has to sacrifice to make her scheme work. But it’s just more melodrama.

Pam McKinnon’s production is impressively mounted, with a seamless collaboration among Derek McLane’s chic scenic design, Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Darrel Maloney’s projections. (The set changes are eye-popping.) The ensemble, which also includes Phillipa Soo as Jeanette’s daughter Rebecca, a recent Harvard Law School graduate with political ambitions of her own, is good, with Thurman, Brown and Russell Crowe look-alike Csokas as the standouts. But they can’t get beyond the limitations of the material. The play reminded me of David Auburn’s 2012 The Columnist, which was also a political play that began promisingly and then turned out to be two-dimensional in every way except for John Lithgow’s star performance. Auburn’s play was non-fiction whereas Willimon’s is fiction, but they’re equally unpersuasive.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment