BY DAVID KENNERLEY | It’s a good thing “The Parisian Woman,” Beau Willimon’s talky new drama about politics and power, has no intermission. Because it takes nearly an hour to build up a decent head of steam, and if there were a break, I expect there’d be more than a few empty seats in the second act.
Luckily, it’s worth staying put.
As it happens, Willimon, the Netflix “House of Cards” creator who knows his way around Capitol Hill and “the swamp,” has crafted a mildly amusing, of-the-moment socio-political drama. But he takes his sweet time shaping a portrait of a married couple finagling their way to power in the wake of the tumultuous 2016 presidential election.
This is no ordinary couple. The beautiful Chloe, played with cool precision by Broadway newbie Uma Thurman, enjoys more than her share of affairs on the side, with both men and women (not to worry — they have a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy). Chloe goes to extremes to help her equally attractive husband, Tom (Josh Lucas, perfectly cast), a tax attorney to filthy rich Republicans, secure the nomination to a cushy judgeship that will set them up comfortably for life.
Pawns in their scheme include Peter (Morton Csokas), a slimy bigwig who has the president’s ear after donating piles of money to his campaign, the highly influential Jeanette (the forever dazzling Blair Brown), recently tapped to head the Federal Reserve, and her daughter (Phillipa Soo, of “Hamilton” fame), an ambitious young Democrat poised to jump into the political arena.
Once Chloe’s ploy is revealed, the drama finally springs to life. In the meantime, we can admire Derek McLane’s tony, tastefully appointed townhouse, located, of course, in the prestigious Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Not that “The Parisian Woman” has only intrigue on its mind. The play, directed by Pam MacKinnon, dabbles in themes of trust, fidelity, avarice, ambition, and morality (or lack thereof). And it refuses to choose sides, portraying Democrats and Republicans with equal sympathy and disdain.
Not only are there scads of loaded topical references to the current administration (“You never know who’s running things these days.”), the president’s Twitter feed, and his chief of staff, John Kelly, there’s even talk of the hotly debated tax reform package dominating recent headlines.
Far from a light parlor-room comedy, many of the quips are more chilling than charming. In this world, and, it seems, also in ours nowadays, greed is bent on crushing good.
“I don’t give a shit about Trump, just like I didn’t give a shit about Obama,” Peter sniffs. “I’m a goddamn businessman. I go whichever way the wind blows. And I saw the wind behind Trump’s sails before the rest of you did. Presidents are assets. They exist to be bought, sold, and managed.”
A very different type of power struggle unfolds in “Downtown Race Riot,” a snapshot of a moment back in 1976, when a mob of rowdy young white men with pipes and bats attacked folks of color in Washington Square Park, trying to assert supremacy.
On that pivotal day, in a nearby cramped Greenwich Village apartment, a dope-addicted Mary Shannon (Chloë Sevigny, in a harrowing, heartbreaking turn) is having an especially choppy go of it with her wayward kids, 18-year old pretty boy Jimmy (David Levi) and tomboyish Joyce (Sadie Scott), a couple of years older.
When Jimmy’s best bud, Marcel (Moise Morancy), a Haitian transplant, comes over and insists on joining the planned riot, emotions run high — he’s oblivious to the deadly trap he’s about to enter. Inexplicably, he hooks up with Joyce, who everyone assumes is a lesbian. Things come to a head when some white bullies show up and issue threats. An oily, two-bit lawyer who has the hots for Mary complicates matters further.
Angst-ridden Jimmy must choose between saving his friend and losing his social standing, such as it is.
If you think this play, written by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld (“The Get Down,” another Netflix series) and directed by Scott Elliott, sounds like a Lifetime TV movie, you would not be wrong. The plot is overstuffed with twists beyond belief. It’s really Sevigny’s nuanced performance that elevates the material. She brings a plaintive dignity to the tortured Mary, who tenderly nurtures her kids one moment and knocks them down the next. And then hides in her room to grab a heroin needle.
Again, when there are lulls in the action, you can admire the meticulously detailed period-perfect set of a cramped apartment, festooned with Indian print fabrics, posters of Donna Summer and James Brown, and spider plants in macramé hangers. There’s even a dirty claw-foot tub in the avocado-hued kitchen. The supremely gifted set designer is — no surprise, here — Derek McLane.
THE PARISIAN WOMAN | Hudson Theatre | 141 W. 44th St. | Through Mar. 11: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $69.50-$260 at TheHudsonB
DOWNTOWN RACE RIOT | The New Group | Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. | Through Dec. 23: Tue.-Fri. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun. at 2 p.m. | $30-$125 at TicketCentral.com or 212-279-4200 |100 mins., with no intermission