When The Parisian Woman premiered in 2013 at California’s South Coast Repertory, there were no nods to Steve Bannon or “locker room talk.” For the play’s 2017 Broadway bow at the Hudson Theatre, however, playwright Beau Willimon brings to the stage a very real, very present world and political climate—one that did not exist months into Obama’s second term.
The play, set primarily in a Capitol Hill townhouse, focuses on Chloe (Uma Thurman in her Broadway debut), the wife of a D.C. attorney. When he’s up for a judgeship, Chloe emerges from the sidelines, using her own variation of political clout to secure the position for her husband. She and the play’s four other characters navigate not a parallel universe, but rather our own.
Following the 2016 presidential election, Willimon knew his piece, inspired by Henry Becque’s 19th-century farce La Parisienne, required some reworking. “When [the election] did happen—this cataclysmic shift in the country,” says the playwright, “I felt that if I didn’t address it, the play would instantly feel anachronistic. It would be disingenuous to the here and the now to not acknowledge the fact that we’re living in a very different landscape.”
Those changes, initially born out of a need to stay true to the times, have in turn “deepened the play and added a sharper edge,” Willimon says. Director Pam MacKinnon agrees: “The stakes of the world got higher, and it raised the personal stakes of every single character.”
Willimon was first approached by Off-Off-Broadway’s The Flea to adapt Becque’s play; at the time, he was unfamiliar with the playwright. Through studying Becque’s work, Willimon found the playwright existed in a “pivotal moment in French theatre, where he was bringing France into naturalism but using these forms that people were unfamiliar with.”
Similarly, Willimon lifts chamber play and farce elements from Becque and his contemporaries, bringing them into today’s sense of naturalism. It’s a practice that, in its truest sense, can only be achieved in theatre: “There’s an opportunity to do something that’s very hard to do in film or television, which is to respond to the present tense of the world around us. I wanted to seize that opportunity.”
The Parisian Woman marks Willimon’s Broadway debut. His 2008 breakout play Farragut North, inspired by his time as a campaign intern, was adapted into the 2011 film The Ides of March, earning him an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. Two years later, he premiered another politically charged adaptation: Netflix’s House of Cards (he departed as show runner following the fourth season).
He’s quick to wave aside concern over the perception that he writes exclusively about politics (“Of my 14 plays, only two take place in the political world”). Still, audiences will come in knowing Willimon’s work largely through the Netflix series, and the writer hopes to surprise them by staying true to the play’s core: a human story about the balance between ambition and morality.
“I’m constantly trying to challenge and reinvent myself,” he says. “This play has existed predating and beyond my work on House of Cards. My hope is that people will see fresh elements in this and that they find them intriguing and exciting.”