This declaration may not be a Manhattan stage first, but it’s obviously a welcome one to judge by the undoubtedly liberal audience in the president’s unwelcoming hometown.
Though The Parisian Woman was originally commissioned by Off-Broadway’s Flea Theater and first presented in 2013 by South Coast Repertory, when many of its topical references were not yet buckshot, Willimon has no trouble repeatedly dumping on the administration in D.C. This is the same Willimon who’s apparently been weaned on politics and, as the developer of House of Cards, has been kicking the federal government seat in its seat for a long time. (His wonderful Faragut North did, too).
So while the preparing The Parisian Woman for the Great White Way, he has done as much explosive updating as he sees fit. (According to one of the characters, the play is set not too long after Hurricane Maria.)
It’s the playwright’s unmistakable conviction that while he may categorize the Oval Office’s current occupant as a “fucker,” he would be equally open to firing that epithet at just about everyone holding, or clawing for, a vaunted position in our nation’s capital. From where he sits, peering through dramatic binoculars, Willimon sees a lot of fuckers. And fucking.
To demonstrate his point, Willimon trots out five immoral and, at least to him, couldn’t-be-more-realistic characters. The title figure is Chloe, perhaps best summed up as a nasty combination of Francis and Claire Underwood, the master schemers of House of Cards. While beautiful and stylish, Chloe is also calculating, chilly, manipulative, and shows signs of being happily pan-sexual. She is played by Uma Thurman, making an impressive Broadway debut.
In a script in which the first big laugh comes on the line “It’s my husband,” Chloe is married to Tom (Josh Lucas), who is nominated for a judgeship. She also enjoys an affair with hyper-jealous Peter (Martin Csokas), a determined wag who, thanks to his financial contributions, boasts of easy access to Donald Trump’s orange-hair-topped ear. Early on, it’s also hinted that Chloe might have yet another taker on the line.
None of this is carried on behind Tom’s back but, rather, in front of it. Here again, Willimon presents another spin on the devious Underwoods. Chloe and Tim are convincingly in love; as proof, sometimes they caress. But theirs is an open marriage. Tom wants that judgeship in the worst way (actually, everyone in Willimon’s world wants everything in the worst way), and loyal Chloe wants it for him — to raise their status in the swamp.
Abrupt, volatile Peter isn’t the only path to a president who is plugging for Tom. Chloe’s eye is also on Jeanette (Blair Brown), who is being confirmed as chair of the Federal Reserve and not only can get to Trump but to the current Chief of Staff, Gen. John F. Kelly, as well. Who is to say that Jeanette’s daughter Rebecca (Phillipa Soo), her sights set on a political career, couldn’t be another step up Tom’s ladder? (The Parisian Woman is nothing if not up to date. If the names “Ivanka,” “Jared,” “Don Jr.” and “Sarah Huckabee Sanders” were dropped, I’m afraid I missed the thuds.)
For an intermissionless and utterly relentless 90 minutes, Chloe leads the other characters in one-upping, out-witting, out-maneuvering and out-suborning one another. Check that: Since Chloe and Tom are conjugally in cahoots, Chloe is the one to carry on lengthy ulterior-motive exchanges in riveting scenes with Peter, Jeanette and Rebecca.
Willimon is damned if he doesn’t succeed at revealing that DC politics is one of those places in America in which the word “corrupt” qualifies as a compliment. These five blindly ambitious denizens, to use an old and comforting cliché, will stop at nothing to get what they want and to reach the heights of where they aim to be. No one sees and no one draws a moral line — certainly not when threats and bribery rear their Medusa heads. Talk about a snake pit!
This is where I take issue with Willimon. Isn’t there someone in his world who will get up the gumption to say something along the lines of “Have you no shame?” Are there no McCains or Corkers or Flakes at all? Maybe, from Willimon’s perspective, there aren’t. Certainly there is no denying that his play is served well by those passing around what he’s dishing. Director Pam MacKinnon lifts the unremitting sniping among actors to a high level. And to think that Soo was last seen on Broadway as that cavorting Parisian, Amelie, in the short-lived musical of the same name.
Valuable support is supplied by Derek McLane’s neatly appointed sets, Jane Greenwood’s costumes (no striking gowns for statuesque Thurman to model?), Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting, Broken Chord’s sound, Darrel Maloney’s headline projections that cover set and costume changes.
Never forget that the stateside House of Cards is adapted from the British version, which was adapted by Andrew Davies from Michael Dobbs’ 1989 novel. Similarly, The Parisian Woman was also inspired by Henri Becque’s 1885 La Parisienne, which I’ve never seen. What do we take from this? Willimon is having his fun with his material. Devious fun, of course.