There are lots of great plays being staged in New York right now, and there’s also The Parisian Woman, a dog’s breakfast of political satire, adultery farce, and tired Age of Trump catchphrases: “Fake news!” “Locker-room talk!” “Cuck!” “Snowflake!” It’s a play that lives in the moment. So do fruit flies.
The playwright, Beau Willimon, is best-known for creating House of Cards, the dreadful Netflix soap that is about as plugged into Washington as Dallas was to the oil business. Willimon is such a newbie when it comes to political maxims that he actually has one of his characters recite, as though it’s a witty aperçu, the bromide about how to be young and conservative is to have no heart, whereas to be old and liberal is to have no brain. Has Willimon also heard the one about how a little knowledge is a dangerous thing? Or in this case, a banal thing.
A woeful Uma Thurman, speaking as though each word is in boldface, plays Chloe, a well-off Capitol Hill lady and inveterate Trump-hating Democrat who lives in a posh townhouse with her husband, Tom (Josh Lucas), a successful tax lawyer. Tom, a lifelong schemer who is angling for a Trump appointment to a federal judgeship, is quietly a liberal but has managed to keep this a secret after working in Washington for 20 years.
The joke in the early going is that Chloe is having an affair with a nervy British banker, Peter (Marton Csokas), but everyone is so blasé about sex in their smart set that it isn’t an issue. She calls the dalliance a “special relationship,” though Thurman, in one of her many excruciating choices, swallows the line. Neither she nor the director, Pam MacKinnon, seems to understand that there’s a joke in here, albeit not a great one. Peter, who is close to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, is on edge not because he suspects Tom knows about the affair but because he thinks Chloe is cheating on both of them with someone else. Chloe can’t seem to settle on whether she was once late to meet Peter because she went to the gynecologist or the dentist. But she needs to keep Peter on the hook because he might be able to get Tom the judgeship. Chloe wants this to happen because Peter, though he will pretend to be conservative to get on the bench, plans to steer the country left once he’s seated.
Meanwhile, Chloe’s friend Jeanette (Blair Brown), a brassy Republican grande dame who thinks Trump can be managed by smart people like her, is about to be confirmed as the new chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, even as her daughter Rebecca (Phillipa Soo), who is fresh out of Harvard Law, aims to enter politics by running for a low-level state office as a liberal Democrat of the #Resist persuasion. To the extent the play is a D.C. satire, the twinkly-eyed cynic Jeanette embodies it, with a few world-weary observations about how politics is all a game and only suckers really care. Rebecca is more given to telling off a TV commentator with (in a remark that supposedly goes viral) “It’s not my job to respect the president. It’s his job to respect his constituents. To respect the rule of law. To respect the judiciary. To respect the free press — even the pseudo-press like yourself.” Willimon frames this kind of tedious grandstanding as so daring and inspirational that it’s bound to propel Rebecca to the presidency someday . . . unless her dark secret becomes known.
That “secret” doesn’t amount to much, and might even be a net asset to Rebecca’s political career, but Willimon frames this weak contrivance as a big twist. The tonal shift that happens in the last third of this 100-minute play is even more awkward: The final scenes feature as many vows to “change the world” as an episode of Silicon Valley, which long ago shrank the phrase down to a joke about vainglory on the part of the speaker. The cynical comic tone gives way to a clenched earnestness, with much caterwauling about the president (whose name goes unmentioned, like Lord Voldemort’s) and pandering applause lines for Broadway’s reliably left-wing audience. The question of whether one young lawyer runs or doesn’t run for a small statewide office inspires thundery takes such as “We’re gonna keep fighting that f***er!” and “You can do the things I never did. You have a purpose. A mission.” and “You’re going to make a difference. You’re going to fight this madman we have in the White House.”
It’s all quite desperate, even embarrassing. It’s the Broadway equivalent of bringing out a guy in a chicken suit to fire the T-shirt cannon into the audience.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.