Most contemporary plays, or at least the ones that make it to New York’s big stages, can be categorized as Realism Lite: recognizable people doing recognizable things, perhaps with a powder coat of stylization for sheen. Actual absurdism, the hope of the 1960s, is dead; the theater today aspires to the condition of Mad Men.
So one of the many achievements of the Sydney Theater Company’s terrific new version of The Maids, which has landed at City Center as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, is that it restores audacity and high style to a genre that was looking pretty threadbare, its once-mystifying metaphors now taught in AP English, its grammar of non sequiturs and visual puns co-opted by comedy and commercials. The production has also restored to the avant-garde a helpful wallop of star power. That platinum movie goddess Cate Blanchett makes one of her periodic descents from the screen to play Claire, the younger of the two miserable title characters. The older, named Solange, is Isabelle Huppert, once the French Cate Blanchett.
What about this 1947 Genet work compelled them? Surely not the promise of ease. The Maids is full-on high-octane crazy, committed to its wretchedness as only a playwright who’d actually lived a wretched life (orphan, thief, prisoner, prostitute) would dare to imagine. It begins with Claire pretending to be her own employer; she sits at Mistress’s vanity one day while Mistress is out, freely spritzing her perfume, trying on her best red velvet McQueen gown, and vilely debasing Solange, who is pretending (in this particular iteration of their long-running game) to be Claire.
CLAIRE (as Mistress): But look, cunt — these flowers spread their petals and raise their stamens in my honour. I’m more beautiful than the Virgin, Claire.
SOLANGE (as Claire): Shut up.
CLAIRE: And there — the holy skylight through which the half-naked hot young gardener bursts into your hot little slit.
SOLANGE: Mistress has deviated a little.
CLAIRE: Your hands. They’ve deviated. Touching me all over. Ugh. How many times do I have to tell you? The rag that cleans the toilet bowl is cleaner than you.
What makes the perversity bearable — and what makes the absurdity successful — is that Genet, in only his second play, demonstrates a classical sense of structure, balancing the outlandishness of the situation with the order and control of his narrative. These are not old-school French theatrical maids, announcing the backstory as if they were tour guides. Rather, we learn what we need to know only through action and only when necessary. Genet doesn’t mind, indeed he seems to get off on, delaying our understanding. It takes a good third of the play before we realize that the sisters’ envy of Mistress, with her entitlement and condescension, has gone way past petty acts of vengeance (returning used tissues to the box; dropping cigarette ashes in her vases of roses) to outright savagery. They plan to kill her; their sadomasochistic sex games amount to rehearsal. But on the day the play’s action takes place, when Mistress (Elizabeth Debicki) comes home before the maids have completely cleaned up from their game, the plan, finally at fruition, goes awry.
The director, Benedict Andrews, who also wrote the terrific vernacular new translation with Blanchett’s husband, Andrew Upton, sets the story in a vast glass box, as a metaphor for the transparent cage that is theater but also as a way of permitting video cameras to follow the play from all sides. (The feed is transmitted to a huge screen above the playing area.) What Andrews seeks is the fracturing of perspective and thus the self-consciousness that arise when we watch live action and its electronic simulacrum at the same time, especially when the two sources of information clash. Onstage we may see Blanchett, from behind, gaily primping at Mistress’s vanity, framed by the chic boudoir that in Alice Babidge’s brilliant design resembles a decadent Ligne Roset ad; above the stage, though, we see her face-on in unflattering extreme close-up, distorted to the point of, well, absurdity. Other times we get peculiar, seemingly off-point details: a shoe, a flower, a gob of spit. It’s an apt modern realization of Genet’s dramaturgy of contradiction, what Sartre called the “whirligigs” of being and appearance that rotate so rapidly the poles eventually merge. “We know that Genet values above all,” Sartre wrote, “the labor of de-realization.”
Not everything Genet valued is honored here. In order “to eliminate nature,” the maids (and Mistress, too) were meant to be played by adolescent boys. To my mind, Blanchett and Huppert eliminate nature just fine, even in their women’s bodies. The acting style is extreme to the point of expressionism, inviting us to laugh sourly at their (and our) attempt to find meaning in it. Both actresses play with accents: Huppert almost incomprehensible (though always quite legible) with her soupy French English; Blanchett like a radio tuning variously to Cockney, Aussie, Received Theatrical Round Tones, and Joan Crawford. The other contrasts between them are also beautifully calibrated. Whereas Huppert’s Solange skips and flounces and sings little ditties, humping herself during their sex games like a yippy lapdog, Blanchett’s Claire affects a grander tragic mien, somehow forcing real emotion through the various wrinkles of the play’s built-in anti-realism. When one is high the other is low; together they make one psychopath.
And Debicki, much younger than is usual for this role, and thus called Mistress instead of Madame, makes another; she’s marvelously awful. (She’s also as slim and as tall as an adolescent boy.) Though Genet plainly sees the psychopathology of wealth as worse than the psychopathology of poverty, still, no one gets much love here. Rich and poor alike seem like reasonable objects of a murder fantasy. (The play was inspired, if that’s the right word, by the real murder of a Frenchwoman by the notorious Papin sisters, her maids.) Maybe fury, at least for Sartre, is the only kind of love available. Ultimately this means that even a superb production of The Maids — and this is the best we’re ever likely to get — exhausts itself (and us, though it’s less than two hours) without producing a sustained emotional effect. With its refusal of reality, it can’t; it’s literally and purposefully self-defeating. And possibly self-deluding. Near the end Claire says, rapturously, “We are drunk. Wild. Beautiful. And free.” She’s talking about what it means for the sisters’ game to end, but it also seems to be Genet’s artistic battle cry. Either way, I give it three out of four.
The Maids is at City Center through August 16.