In 1885, all Paris was talking about Henry Becque’s scandalous new play, La Parisienne, which focused on a heroine whose morals were frankly a matter of political and personal convenience. Parisians quickly saw that Becque’s work contained more than mere scandal: the Comédie-Française, France’s national theater, took it up in 1890; by 1893 it was also a repertory staple for Réjane, Sarah Bernhardt’s leading rival as Paris’s superstar stage diva, who brought it to New York in 1904. In those days, it was news even to blasé Paris audiences that a “respectable” married woman could use her charms so blatantly to leverage her husband’s way to power.
It took British and American theaters roughly another half-century to confront Becque’s open cynicism in their own language. His play had a brief vogue post–World War II: Ashley Dukes’s toned-down adaptation, titled simply Parisienne, hit Broadway in 1950; Eric Bentley included a different version, by Jacques Barzun, in his seminal Fifties series of Modern Theatre anthologies. But even then, La Parisienne caused no box office stir. Anglophone theatergoers simply didn’t cotton to Becque’s nonjudgmental view of his heroine, Clotilde du Mesnil, a woman — and a refined, intelligent, upper-class married woman to boot — who uses her love affairs quite shamelessly as a system of barter. That hit a little too close to home to make “nice” people comfortable in the theater, circa 1950.
Fast-forward to the present, when our cynicism is worn on the sleeve, and naked corruption has become such an everyday part of our politics that we don’t even blink when Republican congressmen announce that they’re voting the way their rich donors tell them to, irrespective of the public good. Several of them made such announcements openly about the loathsome tax reform bill, an act that amounts to an open admission of bribery, but they and their red-state voters, lobotomized by Fox News, barely seem to notice. At the same time, right-wing Christian piety, countered by an unabating quest for celebrity scandal, is in full cry, making a situation astonishingly reminiscent of late-nineteenth-century France, the haughty moralizing on its official face perpetually rebuked by the open secret of what everybody knew was going on underneath: the sexual victimization of the vulnerable, and the trading of fiscal favors for political power — i.e., the very setup Becque was addressing.
So the time should be ripe for another visit from Clotilde du Mesnil. This time around, in Beau Willimon’s very loose adaptation, The Parisian Woman (Hudson Theatre), the scene is not 1885 Paris but Trump’s Washington, D.C., and the wholly Americanized heroine, Parisian only by affinity, is not Clotilde but Chloe (Uma Thurman), wife of Tom (Josh Lucas), a prominent tax lawyer who yearns for a federal judgeship. Chloe is — or, at least, is supposed to be — a woman of preternaturally glamorous allure, with whom most of official Washington can’t help falling in love. Thanks to said allure, Peter (Marton Csokas), a right-wing billionaire, drops in frequently at their home; Jeanette (Blair Brown), an influential hostess and Federal Reserve official, invites Chloe and Tom to those legendary dinner parties where deals are brokered; and Jeanette’s daughter Rebecca (Phillipa Soo), a recent Harvard Law grad and aspiring politician, comes to her for encouragement. Under that polite surface, of course, much else is going on. Willimon has a good sense of the political game-playing involved, and salts it skillfully with topical gags — General Kelly’s name is frequently dropped — and wisecracks about lawyers.
But turning Becque’s Parisian lady into a Capitol Hill cynosure brings two problems (in addition to making the play’s title seem dragged in out of nowhere). The first is that the work’s machinery depends on its power to shock, proceeding from the assumption that politicians are assumed to have principles until caught proving otherwise. Willimon has done his best to sustain that power, giving Chloe and Tom a set of vaguely idealistic notions, for the sake of which Chloe ostensibly commits her intrigues, and moving one of Chloe’s amours into a realm that might have made Becque himself raise an eyebrow. But this doesn’t help, because today’s cynical acts are so overt, and news of them moves so rapidly, that even Chloe’s most outrageous manipulations inevitably seem rather backdated. Even the bit of blackmail triggered by the most startling of Chloe’s adulteries seems mild to a nation waiting wearily to see which will get released first: Trump’s tax returns, or the pee tape.
The Parisian Woman’s second shortfall lies, unhappily, in a strange disparity within Pam MacKinnon’s rather lackluster production. For the three secondary characters played by Csokas, Brown, and Soo, every occurrence in the play seems a matter of prime importance. They make clear at every moment that their lives in this ultra-politicized social world are on the line. Csokas, who was a sensuous and vivid Antony to Laila Robins’s Cleopatra for Theatre for a New Audience a decade ago, here makes himself, to equally strong effect, a fascinatingly unhinged mixture of desperation and domineering. Brown pours out authority with easy aplomb and then lets us watch while that aplomb devastatingly crumbles. Soo, in the most challenging of the three roles, invests her role with a balance of passion and youthful perplexity, both wholly convincing.
The disparity sets in because all three are supposedly fixated on the scintillating woman at the play’s core, whom we can hear when scraps of translated Becque creep into the dialogue but who’s rarely visible in Thurman’s performance, which embodies the difference between today’s media-trained stars and those nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century leading ladies brought up to dominate the stage. Not that Thurman is unskilled: She is precise and appropriate in every moment of the role. But she is never more than that, never the magical creature with the power to hold the fate of a nation’s political elite in the palm of her hand. Hers may be a face the camera loves, but the Hudson Theatre has nearly a thousand seats, and stage actors don’t get close-ups. Lucas, whose idea of complaisance comes dangerously close to complacency, offers her little help. She gets more from Jane Greenwood’s astutely styled costumes, and I’m sure I’d like Derek McLane’s elegantly comfy sets better if their changing didn’t require what seem like very long stage waits — another nineteenth-century holdover, and one that we could easily do without.