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Theatre in Review: The Parisian Woman (Hudson Theatre)

Uma Thurman, Blair Brown. Photo: Matthew Murphy

With its Washington, DC, setting, and the name of House of Cards scribe Beau Willimon on the title page, The Parisian Woman holds out the prospect of giving theatregoers the hot skinny on life in the nation's capital. Instead, this chic bit of folderol, based on an 1885 work by Henri Becque (and seen twice, briefly, on Broadway in 1904 and 1950), is stuck in a time warp. Despite the references to texting, circuit court judges, and presidents who tweet, this is the kind of great-lady vehicle once tailored to the talents of a Katherine Cornell or an Ina Claire, featuring plenty of romantic intrigue and a change of costume to go with each plot twist.

The title character, Chloe, is married to Tom, an almost obscenely successful tax attorney, if Derek McLane's stunner of a drawing room set is any indication. (There are French doors upstage. In this sort of play, there are always French doors upstage.) Despite a passing reference to some volunteer work with Amnesty International, Chloe is unemployed, which leaves her plenty of time for collecting lovers, both for the pleasure of it and for the purpose of making connections to advance Tom's career. (Chloe and Tom are terribly, terribly understanding of each other's needs, in a way that I thought went out with Noël Coward; they even make desultory conversation about her affairs -- over cocktails, of course.)

At the moment, the strategic problem is this: Tom is up for an important judgeship. Peter, Chloe's current lover, is an insider in the Trump Administration and could possibly promote Tom's name -- but Peter, in the throes of a divorce, has become obsessed with Chloe, monopolizing her and jealously grabbing at her phone, certain that she is texting another lover. Such attentions necessarily cloy, and Chloe is ready to shed him. Actually, before the first scene is over, we're ready to kiss him goodbye, too: As written by Willimon and played by Marton Csokas, Peter has all the sex appeal of your average chartered accountant, with twitchy mannerisms that make you want to call the insane asylum hotline. Their alliance lowers Chloe in our estimation even before we get to know her. Whatever did she see in this basket case?

At first, it appears that Tom is sailing smoothly into the judgeship, but then the town's jungle drums start beating out the news that the once-hot candidate has turned ice cold. Convinced that Peter is taking his revenge, and not to be thwarted, Chloe goes into action, using her talents for making (and bedding) friends in high places to work an elegant, and surprisingly brazen, bit of blackmail. "I don't meddle," Chloe says in protest, causing Tom to correct her, saying, "You involve yourself." Having seen The Parisian Woman, I'll say she does.

Given a leading lady with plenty of technical skill and stardust to spare, this glossy fiction -- including a lulu of a plot twist that I can promise you won't see coming -- could have been a genuine guilty pleasure. As Chloe, Uma Thurman has authentic movie-star glamour, elegantly dressed and swanning about gracefully, a Degas ballerina always on point, flattering others and deflecting questions about herself. Curled up in an armchair, accepting a lover's tribute, she is patience on a monument, her sphinxlike smile hinting at all sorts of mysteries. When she speaks, however, the spell is broken: Her vocal manner is overemphatic, punctuated by hand gestures that add unnecessary downbeats to every sentence. Too often, she looks like she's trying too hard; you can see her mentally shifting gears, the one thing a professional charmer like Chloe would never do. If we don't fall for her wiles, it's hard to accept that anyone else does.

Under the direction of Pam MacKinnon, who doesn't seem at home with this sort of high-comedy artifice, the rest of the cast performs unevenly. As Tom, Josh Lucas does fairly well with one of the play's better speeches, admitting to having always harbored the idea of government service without ever identifying the form it might take. Still, his affable, fraternity-brother manner makes implausible the notion that he has suddenly discovered his inner judicial reformer. Much better is Blair Brown, having a fine old time as Jeanette, the White House's choice to head the Federal Reserve; she makes a tasty meal of the script's best lines. ("I'm fascinated by politics," gushes Chloe. "The artistry. The dance." "Well," growls Jeanette, "it's less of a dance these days. More like a demolition derby.") The look of shock mingled with dismay on Brown's face when she discovers that the seemingly ingenuous Chloe has thoroughly euchred her provides one of the production's most indelible moments. Phillipa Soo sparkles as Jeanette's daughter, a politician-in-training -- "Her first word was 'filibuster'," notes her mother -- who becomes an unknowing pawn in Chloe's game.

If MacKinnon can't quite find the right style for the play's heavily manicured dialogue, she ensures that the production has the necessary polish. In addition to the airy, sunny light-blue drawing room -- which speaks volumes about Tom and Chloe's net worth -- McLane also supplies an ample apartment terrace and a posh hotel lobby where ladies meet to take tea and talk turkey. The scene changes are marked by the appearance of a video wall, which, in Darrel Maloney's design, features snatches of headlines. Jane Greenwood designed practically an entire fashion line for Thurman and cannily, revealingly outfits all three female characters for a party scene. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting is marked by his trademark pointillist detail and sensitivity to time's passage. Broken Chord provides solid reinforcement for its own incidental music, with its faintly Kurt Weillesque undertones.

"I adore you," says Tom, as he and Chloe celebrate another success. The trouble with The Parisian Woman is that we don't quite adore her. Her skills as a siren aren't really believable and her stratagems come from the theatre of another era. Then again, for all its topical references, this sort of plushly furnished evening of drawing room duels seems wildly out of touch with the Lewis Carroll political moment that we are currently in. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, at the end of the play, the liberals end happily and the conservatives, unhappily -- and that is what fiction means. -- David Barbour

(1 December 2017)

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