Beau Willimon has written the story of a D.C. couple whose power grab pitches them against unexpected roadblocks along the Via Dolorosa that is the Beltway, before reaching their destination. That’s of course an apt description of Willimon’s Netflix series House of Cards, but it also works for The Parisian Woman, which opened tonight on Broadway in a production starring Uma Thurman, making her Broadway debut in the title role.
Her name is Chloe, and she’s the soignée wife of Tom (Josh Lucas, of Mark Felt, The Mysteries of Laura, etc.), a comfortably set tax lawyer well-connected in the way of fixers whose job is to keep the images of his high-profile clients blemish-free, like acne cream. The work has provided Tom with a well-appointed townhouse (the set is by Derek McLane) and Chloe with enough leisure time to indulge her passions for art, movies and a lover, Peter (Marton Csokas, Loving), a super-rich banker with a direct line to the White House.
When Tom, seeking a more meaningful legacy, decides to go after a judgeship, liberal-minded Chloe emerges from her languor to make it happen, pressing Peter to exercise his influence and sucking up to Jeanette (Blair Brown, Orange is the New Black, Altered States), a Republican doyenne and likely presidential appointee in her own right. This all is happening in the present, and while the current occupant of the White House is never named, the 90-minute play is peppered with newsy references that suggest not so much keen-eared timeliness as a script in flux right up to curtain time.
Which may explain why The Parisian Woman is such a train wreck. If House of Cards succeeded on the strength of clipped dialogue smoothly set off by Kevin Spacey’s conspiratorial asides to the audience, the dramaturgy fails Willimon here. The dialogue is stilted and delivered haltingly even by the pros in the cast, and they move about the stage as if in fear that Steve Bannon will show up any minute looking for a dance partner.
This is especially true of the star, who has been weirdly, unflatteringly dressed by the great Jane Greenwood (that’s the problem with flops: pretty much all involved come out looking their worst). Thurman strikes one pose, then swans to the next pose, embellishing each move with a limpid gesture that would be catnip to the Forbidden Broadway crowd. The amateurism defeats both the director, Pam MacKinnon (a Tony winner for her revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and the more experienced actors onstage, especially Brown, with whom Thurman shares the key scenes. A Tony winner for the brainy Copenhagen, Brown knows how to play a woman supremely skilled in the political and social arts of diplomacy. It’s almost painful to watch her in this one-sided showdown with Thurman – even as Willimon stacks the deck in Chloe’s favor. (Which, by the way, involves bringing in Phillipa Soo as Jeanette’s daughter, Becky, and setting up an implausible twist.)
Lucas, too, is good at posing, and he has a Paul Newmanish quality that the play undercuts by making Tom such a non-entity. It’s almost touching when Tom admits that wealth hasn’t made him any sort of player while a judgeship, well that would really be something. Ditto Csokas, whose Peter is such a weenie that it’s a challenge to figure out what Chloe, not to mention his board of directors, sees in him.
What’s so striking about The Parisian Woman is how little of the cynical darkness that suffuses House of Cards has made its way from the Baltimore soundstage to the Hudson Theatre. An earlier tryout in San Diego apparently aroused Thurman’s interest, but neither the play nor the star is ready for Broadway. The zingers don’t zing, the flings flop, and 90 minutes pass like the first year of the administration of One Who Must Not Be Named.