NEW YORK — It’s kind of wild, if not entirely wonderful, what Cate Blanchett and her co-conspirators achieve in their revival of Jean Genet’s louche tragicomedy, “The Maids.” With cameras perched behind every mirror on the stage at New York City Center, the antic, mischievous charades of Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, as sullen sisters in the employ of an imperious mistress, are projected onto a giant screen, the better for us to peer into every pore of their stricken faces.
The mistress — called Mistress— is portrayed by the ravishing Elizabeth Debicki as a petulant trophy wife, prone to hysterics, in a dazzler of a supporting turn. She and Blanchett, in fact, perform this difficult, at times wearying, piece at such an accomplished level that it’s doubly painful to report that Huppert, the French film and stage star, can’t keep up. Her portrayal of Solange, the older of the two sibling maids, remains so stridently one-note, and her English is such a struggle to understand, that a pivotal leg of this hyper-dramatic evening collapses.
And with this significant deficit, “The Maids,” a centerpiece of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival that had its official opening Friday night, isn’t quite the galvanizing event it’s meant to be, courtesy of director Benedict Andrews and his co-adapter, Andrew Upton. In Huppert’s defense, Genet’s 1947 play, full of bohemian contempt for, among other things, the stresses inflicted on the lower classes by those above them on the social ladder, is windy and elliptical. Solange and Claire (Blanchett) engage in what amounts to 105 minutes of spleen-venting in the guise of an increasingly cruel masquerade, during which they repeatedly switch the roles of toxic mistress and submissive servant. (Until, of course, the appearance of the real mistress — a piece of work herself.) Getting the drama’s savage heart to pump at full tilt is a challenge of a high order.
Still, Andrews, who first directed the actresses in “The Maids” last year at Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company, develops some spectacular conceits with the aid of set designer Alice Babidge. They create a gorgeous environment, wittily overripe with feminine touches. We’re in Mistress’s boudoir, a shrine to fashion and filled to choking point with flowers of every variety: roses, mimosas, calla lilies, gladioli. The plushness and softness are a counterpoint to the acrid vindictiveness that suffuses the play, a bitterness that has driven the maids to take a spiteful revenge on their employer and now has them quaking at the possible consequences. It’s the terror of the powerless. The rawness in the air is heightened by the work of the camera operators, whom an audience sees lurking behind the room’s glass walls.
The cameras intensify the idea of the theater as the domain of unrelenting exposure; there is nowhere for these characters to hide. (Onscreen, we even watch as Debicki’s Mistress retreats to a bathroom to relieve herself.) At center stage, Blanchett’s Claire, in an extravagant parody of her employer, sits at a vanity with her back to the audience, applying makeup. A lens behind the dressing-table mirror captures in extreme close-up the beautiful planes of Blanchett’s face, but also the haunted cast of the eyes — a suggestion of an anguish underlying the bravado.
Blanchett has been more haunting still on the stage, as Blanche in the stunning production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” that, as then-co-artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company, she brought to the Kennedy Center in 2009. She’s been funnier, too, as evidenced by her exuberant take on Yelena in “Uncle Vanya” at the center two years later. But as the turbulent, histrionic Claire, never has she seemed freer.
The Maids, by Jean Genet. Directed by Benedict Andrews. Translation by Andrews and Andrew Upton. Sets and costumes, Alice Babidge. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Tickets, $35-$375. Through Aug. 16 at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., New York. Visit www.lincolncenterfestival.org.