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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Willimon isn't a case of an unknown writer lucky enough to have a star to play the lead in his play. Though his two early plays .Farragut North about a presidential campaign, and Lower Depth about Hurricane Katrina, premiered at small downtown theaters, the first was made into a film which he co-scripted (The Ides of March), and the other led to The Parisian Woman being commissioned by the Flea Theater where it played. And, of course, 2013 saw him make audiences binge through the first twelve episodes of a political thriller about a ruthlessly ambitious political couple.
Since House of Cards was an Americanized version of a BBC series with the same name, Willimon's use of Henri Becque's 19th century comedy La Parisienne as the template for his torn from the headlines play now at the Hudson Theater isn't as far-fetched as it may initially seem to be.
In Beque's play the characters who behave badly are members of Parisian society. It serves mostly as a wellspring for Wilimon's own look at the Machiavellian misdeeds and sexual peccadillos in the world of politics that Willimon has been focused on since his days as an intern and volunteer for various political campaigns (cases in point: Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean's 2000 and 2004 presidential campaign).
For sure, sex, lies and manipulative interactions are more prevalent than ever in the current administration. And Willimon's dreamers and schemers take Beque's Parisians' misbehavior to darker, more troubling places.
There are plenty of acerbic zingers to bring out the play's send-up of the Trump administration. Add the numerous contrived plot twists and you have a live, but not quite lively enough, mini House of Cards.
Chloe's husband Tom (Josh Lucas) is not nearly as evil a Richard the Third-like spider as Frank Underwood, the marriage is, like that of the Underwoods, an atypical partnership. We're told that Tom's knows about and accepts the Chloe-Peter affair right from the start, so there's no surprise element there. And, while the object of their ambition is essentially honorable, they too are willing to make ethical compromises. There are other Underwood-ish things about them — notably, Tom's rising to his present status on his own and not courtesy of inherited wealth (like Peter). But for all these similarities, The Parisian Woman lacks the sizzle of that groundbreaking series, or the authenticity of Farragut North.
The script has undergone extensive revisions since its premiere at South Coast Rep which took place prior to the 2016 election. There's no mistaking that Trump is the man the people in charge of policy making and political appointments work for. The Attorney-General appointment that Tom covets has been filled, so the post in which Tom hopes "to make a difference" is a judgeship in the Appellate Court — a court Mr. Trump has been filling with die-hard conservatives.
Thus, while Gore Vidal's The Best Man is timeless despite being about old style politics, The Parisian Woman is a more ephemeral, call to action. And the zingers that bring the big knowing laughs are clearly intended to typify the venality of those, like Peter, who support Trump even if they don't like him. As he puts it: "I don't give a shit about Trump. Just like I didn't give a shit about Obama. Or Bush. Or any of them. I'm a goddamn businessman. I go whichever way the wind blows. And I saw the wind behind Trump's sails before the rest of you did. Presidents are assets. They exist to be bought, sold, and managed. That's it.
Ultimately, The Parisian Woman is hardly an escape from the nonstop media coverage of the latest scandalous and often scary news from this unpredictable and unnerving presidency. Instead it's a continuation of talk and more talk. Sad tro say, despite its good intentions as a take action drama, it comes off mainly as a star vehicle for Thurman.
Though Thurman is on stage throughout, the lighting and projection work by Peter Kaczorowski and Darrel Maloney for the between scene blackouts, allow her to change outfits (by costumer par excellence Jane Greenwood) for every scene. Those glitzy blackout moments also enable Derek McLane to create a balcony and a restaurant scene in between the opening and closing in the elegant townhouse he's designed for Chloe and Tom's elegant town house.
While the other four characters are satellites in Chloe's orbit, Thurman's performance, like Willimon's script, is not as satisfying as it should be. She simply doesn't capture the one of a kind quality this woman is supposed to have. Nothing about the persona she presents to us lives up to one character's view of her as someone who at any social gathering holds everyone in the palm of her hand, hanging on to her every word.
Josh Lucas is okay as the husband who reluctantly accepts her "meddling" on his behalf and who still sees her as "my Parisian Woman." And Marton Cscokas does Peter, the creepily, obnoxious lover quite well. But the real star turn of this production is by veteran Broadway actress Blair Brown as Jessica, a powerful Republican one-percenter and appointee to a high post. Too bad that Phillipa Soo, who distinguished herself in Hamilton and the original Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is stuck with the thankless role of Jessica's daughter Rebecca who Chloe sees as the future leader of the generation that will undo her generation's lethargy.
While Thurman fans and all eager to applaud any send-up of the current political Zeitgeist will probably keep the huge Hudson Theater's seats filled even without it receiving critical nods as a great play. And Beau Willimon is to be commended for trying to write a political play that's both amusing and serious about championing truthfulness.
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The Parisian Woman by Beau Willimon
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Cast: Uma Thurman (Chloe), Josh Lucas (Tom), Blair Brown (Jeanette), Marton Csokas (Peter), Phillipa Soo (Rebecca)
Sets: Derek McLane
Costumes: Jane Greenwood
Lighting: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound and original compositions: Broken Chord
Hair Design: Tom Watson
Make-Up Design: Tommy Kurzma
Stage Manager: William Lang
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermissionbr> The Hudson Theater 141 West 44th Street
From 11/09/17; opening 11/30/17; tickets on sale through 3/11/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
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