Between the president’s incessant, exclamatory tweets and a never-ending news cycle covering the White House’s hirings and firings, it’s nearly impossible not to be plugged into what’s happening in Washington these days. It’s a time ripe for analysis, not simple observation. So you’d think, The Parisian Woman, a new play from House of Cards creator Beau Willimon (who also penned the 2008 drama Farragut North) would provide a sharp, fresh perspective on these strange, unprecedented times. Unfortunately, Willimon brings none of his shrewd insight into the political machine to the stage here.
Thurman makes her Broadway debut as Chloe, the titular Woman. She’s married to aspiring federal judge Tom (Sweet Home Alabama‘s Josh Lucas), and fills her job-less hours in various ways: Socializing with D.C. powerhouses like soon-to-be chair of the Fed Jeanette (Tony winner Blair Brown, most recently seen on Orange is the New Black) and her daughter, liberal Harvard Law grad Rebecca (Hamilton alumna Philippa Soo, whose acting is a highlight of the show), going to museums, scheming to help Tom secure his coveted nomination, and, with Tom’s implicit permission, carrying on a few extramarital affairs. Her principle paramour is English businessman Peter (Marton Cskoas), whose infatuation with her has grown tiresome, but his political connections — like a direct line to the president’s ear — make it tough for her to get rid of him completely.
Which brings us to that president. Donald Trump looms large in the background of the play, as characters, liberal and conservative, make winking quips like, “You never know who’s really running things these days,” and “Public opinion doesn’t matter anymore,” over and over. They’re amusing enough, but don’t offer any more insight than a five-minute scroll through Twitter would, and it quickly starts to feel stale and cliché.
Likewise, Thurman’s Chloe feels uninspired, and the actress doesn’t slip smoothly into the role. Thanks to Jane Greenwood’s chic costumes, Thurman definitely looks the part of the sophisticated, conniving political wife — but her lines come off with a strange affect that doesn’t match the infectious charisma we’re supposed to believe Chloe has, and there’s not much sizzle to her relationship with Tom.
Characters like Jeanette remark about Chloe’s brilliance and how she could succeed in any career she chose, though she doesn’t seem to want one. But it’s hard for the audience to understand what Chloe’s motivations are for anything she does. Does she really just want to help Tom become a federal judge and then sit idly by, or did she ever have dreams of a career of her own? Is she simply a gifted puppet master (or narcissist) who enjoys luring people in and casting them aside? Or is she a bohemian at heart who wants to move to Paris and entertain a revolving door of lovers? Willimon and Thurman never quite make that clear, and as such, it’s difficult to care about the outcomes of any of Chloe’s decisions. She doesn’t feel like someone to write a whole 90-minute play about.
Still, the show has its pleasures: Soo is wonderful as a young woman who’s been groomed for a political career by her parents, but is still able to remain idealistic and hopeful. And some of Willimon’s lines are deliciously funny, like, “Men: Their nose gets jealous if they’re breathing out of their mouth.” But for audiences looking for a nimble, complex take on Washington in 2017, you’re better off just reading the paper. C+