In the quickly-cancelled but much beloved TV show “Smash” Uma Thurman played Rebecca Duvall, a famous movie actress who was making a Broadway debut. Her casting was a ploy by the producers to sell more tickets, even though they knew she was not as talented or qualified as the original stage actress they planned to star in the show. Over the course of rehearsals and previews, it became evident that Rebecca Duvall could not make the transition to the stage, that sometimes a screen actor is always (and only) a screen actor.
Although many may have forgotten about Thurman’s little stint on “Smash” I could not help but have it in mind when seeing “The Parisian Woman” which opened at the Hudson Theatre on Thursday. The irony was as striking as it was tragic. It seems that once again, Thurman is doomed to repeat her “Smash” plotline, but this time instead of quitting, she is sticking with a show that seems almost sure to fail.
“The Parisian Woman” by Beau Willimon, inspired by a 19th century work “La Parisienne” tells the story of Chloe (Thurman), an alluring socialite in DC who is willing to manipulate those around her to get her husband Tom (Josh Lucas) a nomination for a judgeship. Among those entangled in her web are her wealthy lover Peter (Martin Csokas) as well as the future head of the Federal Reserve Jeanette (Blair Brown) and her Liberal daughter Rebecca (Phillipa Soo). This brief synopsis may feel like a political melodrama, and at times it is. But at other times it tries to be a comedy, at others a romance, and at its most painful moments, an incredibly obvious political commentary void of any nuance.
However, with such a celebrity-infused cast that includes the star the of “Kill Bill” movies, a cast member of the “American Pyscho” film, a “Lord of the Rings” alumnus, a guest star on “Orange is the New Black,” and an original staring cast member of “Hamilton” what could go wrong?
Seemingly, a lot. It is hard though where to place the blame. Fundamentally, this play seems like a bad piece of writing. Willimon has no other significant playwrighting credits, a fact that surprises no one in the audience. Other than the clear genre confusion previously mentioned, the dialogue itself is completely overwrought, robotic, and simplistic, often complete with odd one-liners and bon mots that only Oscar Wilde could pull off. But some blame must also go to the director, Pam McKinnon, whose most recent Broadways projects were all mostly unsuccessful, most recently, the flop “Amelie.” The staging of the show was often awkward and incredibly unnatural, including bizarre acting gestures and seemingly never-ending pseudo-experimental moments of stage silence.
One of the more tragic elements of the production is the presence of Phillipa Soo, who mistakenly collaborated with McKinnon again after the disastrous production of “Amelie” earlier this year. Despite working with poorly written material and a less-than-stellar director, Soo was probably the best part of the show, albeit for the two short scenes she was in it. Brown was also not awful as a staunch and unethical Republican, but her accent and bawdiness seemed too much of a replica of her “Orange is the New Black” character to be praise-worthy. It is clear that the playwright was much better at writing female characters than male, since then men of the production (Lucas and Csokas) were basically intolerable and miserable to watch. But in their defense, their characters were horribly written and had to contend with some of the most stilted dialogue to be heard on Broadway in the last decade.
Among all the things to be critical of, one of the most obvious is the timing of the dialogue and the interactions between the actors. It was as if the actors were not even listening to each other, they were just waiting for their scene partner to finish, so they could speak their next line. This lack of engagement, combined with the poor quality of the writing, tragically gave the show a vibe closer to that of a high school play than a Broadway production.
In spite all of the criticism, praise must be given to the set design by Derek McLane and costumes by Jane Greenwood which were detailed, chic, and incredibly impressive. The same cannot be said about the overwrought projections (Darrel Maloney), sound design, and original compositions (Broken Chord), which seemed like bad copies of the aesthetics from “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Father.” I would also be remiss if I did not praise “The Parisian Woman” for trying to be a play about contemporary politics, something we have yet to see on Broadway since the 2016 election. Although there has been a string of one-man show political rants (“Terms of my Surrender” and “Latin History for Morons”), it is refreshing to see a work of dramatic fiction try to tackle our political climate. Sadly, I am only able to praise this as a goal, since it wholeheartedly failed to provide any meaningful or thought-provoking political commentary.
In the middle of this creative flop is Uma Thurman. The entire show rests on her. She drives the plot and she makes all the political points–at least she tries to do both. Sadly, she is not very successful at either. Although she is certainly not a bad actress and does actually have some triumphant acting moments in this production, this role is clearly too much for her. She practically never leaves the stage and by the end she seems tired, overwhelmed, and a little bit lost. Much like Clive Owen in “M. Butterfly” she is proving the maxim that perhaps screen actors should stay on the screen.
But is she to blame? Is the cast as a whole? Or should we criticize the poorly written dialogue and the bad direction? Most likely all deserve some criticism for failing to produce an even halfway decent production. Regardless of who you chose to blame, it is clear that “The Parisian Woman” is likely to become one of the many shows placed in the “Broadway flop” category following it’s imminent closing.