But when her tax attorney husband, Tom (Josh Lucas), is given the chance to vie for an open seat on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, Chloe stirs herself into action involving paramours, power brokers and blackmail. An old friend — a lovesick banker played by Marton Csokas — is convinced to “put in a good word” with the administration; a new friend — Jeanette (Blair Brown), who has just been nominated to head the Federal Reserve — is manipulated into making the good word stick. Jeanette’s fresh-out-of-Harvard-Law daughter, Rebecca (Philippa Soo), is gradually pulled into the web as well.
Though the revelations and counter-revelations are so efficiently timed (after an interminable buildup) that they often make you chuckle, this is no comedy. If only it were! But instead of letting his take on the original play operate as a farce, as the 1957 Brigitte Bardot film version did, Mr. Willimon has worked mightily to bend the material toward something deeper. And deeper is a place it doesn’t want to go. The setups are unlikely, the payoffs banal. Call it “Dangerless Liaisons.”
To be sure, Mr. Willimon has tried to up the ante. In the three years since an earlier version of “The Parisian Woman” appeared at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., the election of Donald J. Trump has allowed the author to paint a new gloss of immediacy on the action. The person whose ear Chloe and Tom wish to infiltrate is “Kelly” — presumably John Kelly, the White House chief of staff. The go-along-to-get-along Federal Reserve nominee stalwartly suggests that the president (whose name is barely spoken) can be managed. “We’ve got good people around him now,” she says.
But these topical references, met by weak laughs from the audience, are just more set dressing. (Between scenes, Mr. McLane even gives us an electronic media wall borrowed from “Dear Evan Hansen.”)
Fundamentally the play wants to be about the price of ambition, which in the end doesn’t seem to be very high. Tom, a closet liberal, has spent his professional lifetime donating equally to Republicans and Democrats, and is untroubled by the prospect of lying during his confirmation hearings should he be nominated. Chloe fervidly supports him, admitting that she — and her generation, she adds sententiously — “didn’t do enough. We stood by and watched it all happen.”
Why this bothers her only now is not explained. Nor are we given any reason to believe the basic setup of their marriage, which includes license to have discreet affairs as long as honesty is maintained. The possibility of jealousy never arises; it would complicate the already overcomplicated plot. Rather, Mr. Willimon engages in because-I-say-so stakes-building. Things we need to know (handsome 40-ish lawyer bears secret anguish over sense of purposelessness) are posted baldly in dialogue like a weird Tinder profile.
But then nothing in this play — not one line or ginned-up plot turn — feels real. (I had pretty much the same opinion of Mr. Willimon’s “Farragut North,” which dealt with campaign spin doctors.) That some of the cast members nevertheless do feel real is a tribute to the great mystery of stage performance.
Which brings us back to Ms. Thurman. Unlike many actors whose expertise derives from movies, she has no trouble fully inhabiting, and projecting, even a jury-rigged character like Chloe. Her intelligence and, it has to be said, her innate glamour, make it possible to care about someone you do not believe in.
Most of the rest of the cast, their parts even less defined, struggle to offer coherent portraits. This proves no impediment to Ms. Brown, however, whose 40-plus years on the stage provide her with an arsenal of theatrical weapons she can deploy at any moment. Watch her coo in pride over her daughter; watch her collapse in mortification later. Her second long scene with Ms. Thurman, when the tables get turned, is the high point of the drama. It may be the only drama, in fact.
The rest is the kind of theater you could imagine working better on television. With long, talky exchanges and no camera, the director, Pam MacKinnon, is forced to create focus however she can, mostly by having the actors move back and forth a lot. At times, Ms. Thurman’s Chloe seems like an extra-finicky Goldilocks, sampling two identical midcentury chairs, over and over.
But there I am, back at the set. Maybe that’s inevitable in a Washington play during the presidency of a man who made his name in real estate.