BY: ELYSA GARDNER
At first blush, the Broadway premiere of Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman (inspired by the 19th century French play La Parisienne) may seem ill timed. The play’s protagonist, Chloe, comes across, at least initially, as a smooth social climber willing to make full use of her feminine charms to get what she wants. Isn’t that precisely the kind of cliché we should all be avoiding at this fraught moment, as women bravely continue to come forward with personal accounts of harassment and assault conducted by public figures?
But sex and power are, in fact, complicated, and so is Chloe, played by Uma Thurman, an actress with professional ties to Weinstein. The Parisian Woman began previews only weeks after Harvey Weinstein’s long history of alleged predatory behavior toward women came to the public’s attention, and was written by the creator of the Netflix hit House of Cards, which starred Kevin Spacey, who was immediately dropped after being accused of making sexual advances on a minor. And they are only two of the men recently outed for allegedly abusing their power.
The wife of a prominent tax attorney, the character lives in an elegant townhouse in Washington, D.C., where her husband, Tom (Josh Lucas), is angling for a position as judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Chloe has been having an affair with a banker, Peter (Marton Csokas), who happens to have President Donald Trump’s ear, and is cultivating a friendship with another influential player, the soon-to-be Federal Reserve chairwoman Jeanette Simpson, played by Tony Award-winning stage and screen veteran Blair Brown.
But Chloe soon emerges as a more nuanced, admirable, and poignant figure. From the start, she shoots down Peter’s sexist remarks. We learn that she leans left in her politics, and that her passions are genuine, even when she is or appears to be scheming. When Jeanette asks why she never pursued a career, Chloe responds, “You don’t have to leave a mark to be fulfilled…Pleasure and beauty. That’s what fulfills me.” But by the end of The Parisian Woman, some will wonder what Chloe may have lost in choosing a route more readily accessible to attractive women in a still-patriarchal culture.
Thurman had been associated with Weinstein through her acclaimed work in the 1990s with director Quentin Tarantino, whose films Weinstein has produced and actively championed. Willimon had stepped down as Cards‘ show runner before the fifth season, and was apparently surprised when, in an October interview, Anthony Rapp accused the leading man of having made a sexual advance toward him when Rapp was a minor. (Spacey was dropped from Cards immediately; other men have since charged him with misconduct.)
In a statement on Twitter, Willimon said he had “neither witnessed nor was aware of any inappropriate behavior on set or off” while working with Spacey on Cards, but added that he found Rapp’s story “deeply troubling…I take reports of such behavior seriously and this is no exception. I feel for Mr. Rapp and I support his courage.”
Thurman was initially less forthcoming about Weinstein. “I don’t have a tidy sound byte for you,” she told Access Hollywood when asked about the film titan, “because I am not a child and I have learned that when I have spoken in anger, I usually regret the way I express myself…When I’m ready, I’ll say what I have to say.” Weeks later, she found the right words, and used them in an Instagram post: “Happy Thanksgiving Everyone! (Except you Harvey, and all your wicked conspirators—I’m glad it’s going slowly—you don’t deserve a bullet)—stay tuned.”
Such impassioned words wouldn’t be typed or uttered—not in public, anyway—by Willimon’s most famous Washington wife, Cards’ fictional first lady, Claire Underwood. Though Chloe may initially inspire comparisons to that cool blonde, played by Robin Wright, The Parisian Woman’s sort-of title character (Chloe traveled to Paris as a younger woman, inspiring her husband’s affectionate nickname for her) turns out to be less patently ambitious, or repressed. But Chloe shares with Claire a sense of having forfeited something.
Like Thurman and Wright—and The Parisian Woman’s director, Pam MacKinnon—the characters are members of Generation X, who were supposed to soar on the feminist advances of baby boomers but, the play reminds us, still face considerable obstacles.
Chloe and Jeanette do not take their relatively fortunate lives for granted. “What I find with both characters is that there’s no bitterness. They’ve dealt with what it means to be a woman, of a certain class and a certain race”—white, as represented here —“and I think they’re both aware that other women have had a harder row to hoe,” Brown tells Broadway Spin.
Of her own character, Brown says, “she’s the polar opposite of me in terms of what she believes in politically, but she is not a fool. She’s someone of substance, who came up through the world of economics; she’s been in many rooms full of powerful men, and she’s been able to stay true to herself in dealing with them. That’s a good story to be telling now, with all these predators popping up.”
If Brown’s Jeanette is the baby boomer who has made the system work for her, Jeanette’s daughter, Rebecca—a recent law school graduate and budding politician/activist, played by Hamilton and Amelie star Phillipa Soo—represents the idealistic, and ambitious, millennial. “Don’t make the mistake of putting love before work,” Chloe tells Rebecca, meaningfully, adding, “You can do the things I never did…You’re going to make a difference.” But Chloe also advises, “Take a few moments to be young before you launch this extraordinary life of yours.”
Yet Chloe has achieved a level of agency in her own right, one that other women might envy. Brown muses that on some level, “Jeanette is living vicariously through Chloe, because she never had that spirit, that kind of high romance.” Brown adds, “All the characters in the play are trying to figure out their moral compass, what matters to them. They’re emotionally smart—the women in particular, because they’re on the sidelines more; they watch more than men do, so they can see more.”
In acknowledging the complexity of women’s lives and choices, and portraying them as neither victims nor villains, The Parisian Woman tackles turf that has remained underexplored, even as accounts of male misconduct toward women pop up everywhere and every day. With a distinctly light hand, Willimon’s play adds something valuable to our current cultural conversation.