The name of Donald Trump is never spoken in playwright Beau Willimon’s “The Parisian Woman,” a stunningly smug, utterly incredible and wholly inept political satire of the sexual mores of the chattering Republican classes, starring Uma Thurman. At the Hudson Theatre, Broadway is teaching an object lesson in how the looming presence of the 45th president of the United States is spawning way, way more than his fair share of lousy art.
Especially when progressive scribes throw their barbs with all of the nuance, sophistication and intellectual complexity of a presidential tweet. To oppose, even at fictional remove, does not, ipso facto, mean to descend to the same level. One of the fundamental problems of this terrible show is that you never for a moment believe that anyone involved here really knows how the people they are lampooning actually function. The other side, maybe. But not the Trumpians. Not even the expedient classes.
Willimon is best known for running the show known as “House of Cards,” a justly acclaimed online TV drama that starred Kevin Spacey and suddenly seems entirely out of step with these deconstructing times.
Indeed, with its narrative of multiple sexual betrayals, twisting bits of plotted trickery, besuited, bloviating dudes and femmes potentially fatale, “The Parisian Woman” feels very much like a pilot for such a show, or an episode that was subsequently deemed to lack credibility, something that was left on the proverbial cutting-room floor. Following an earlier production of this 2013 play at South Coast Repertory, Willimon did a major rewrite, focusing on the Trump administration, adding in references to Charlottesville and Ivanka. In so doing, he painted himself into a trap.
“House of Cards” owes a great deal to “Richard III,” and “The Parisian Woman” is one of those plays juiced by exposing how the petty jealousies and rivalries of powerful Washington families — especially those revolving around middle-age sex — have geopolitical consequences. But whatever else you might throw at the Trump crew, they hardly are Washington insiders. And the play never probes the current discomfort of the Republican establishment. Rather, it conflates and thus oversimplifies everything right of center. You have to write a play about Trumpworld; you can’t just rewrite an earlier one and take glancing note of the change. Too much has happened, and is happening, for that.
But you can’t blame Trump (or Willimon) for some of the incomprehensibly terrible acting on view in director Pam MacKinnon’s production, an endeavor filled with flat line renditions, uncomfortable pauses and live bodies that just cannot figure out how to move when they speak. Thurman is the actress charged with playing Chloe, the Machiavellian wife of Tom (Josh Lucas), a tax attorney seeking a judgeship, and the lover of Peter (Marton Csokas), a White House insider. Peter also is a sexual aggressor toward Rebecca (Phillipa Soo), the poshly educated daughter of Jeanette (Blair Brown), who has access to that which Chloe wants.
Thurman flails around the stage, as if she does not know what to do. Soo mostly retreats within herself, connecting with no one. Lucas and Csokas have some spark, and Csokas even has a note of vulnerability, but these characters, as they play them, are absurd. Only Brown is any good, and her character is not central enough to allow anything to build. Even the jittery set from Derek McLane is a mishmash of tradition and technology; it looks as lost and as desexualized as the actors.
Maybe the theater lover should take solace in this singular demonstration of how the live art demands so very much more than its more popular and lucrative prerecorded cousins, how a theater in Midtown can expose a lack of truth and craft and humanity with all of the clear-eyed glare of the flashbulbs illuminating the latest selfish sinner brought to shame. There’s that, I suppose.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.