Remember that time you were snippy with the babysitter? Or the morning you "forgot" to tip the handyman? Still feeling a wee bit guilty, huh? Well, relax! Turns out you're a saint compared with Mrs. Lemarchand, the immaculately groomed crackpot of Marie Ndiaye's "Hilda."
Mrs. Lemarchand doesn't simply want a housekeeper. She wants to keep her housekeeper. As in maid prison. She talks with an unsettling intensity about how much she loves the new maid. In fact, she declares her undying affection before she's even met the new maid. (Cue "Twilight Zone" theme.) Mrs. Lemarchand says a lot of worrisome things, such as "Hilda is part of me." And when Hilda's husband shows up at her door with a bloody hand -- he's accidentally cut off the tip of a finger at work -- Mrs. Lemarchand explains that no, Hilda cannot see him or tend to his gaping wound because she still has chores to complete upstairs. She does, however, slip him a few bucks for cab fare.
She'd make a great Stepford Wife, Mrs. Lemarchand would. If only she didn't feel the need to contract out the vacuuming.
Hilda is one beleaguered cleaning lady in this portentous and pretentious new play at Studio Theatre. We never see her -- no down time for Hilda! -- but we do get plenty of Mrs. Lemarchand and the spotless home (white chairs, white table, white carpet, white walls, white doors, white staircase) she maintains. Were it not for the weirdly fascinating, stylized and highly disciplined portrayal of Mrs. Lemarchand by Ellen Karas, "Hilda" might be insufferable.
As it stands, the piece is merely tedious. The production, which originated at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, is making a stop at Studio before an off-Broadway engagement. It's a bloated absurdist sketch that Ndiaye, a French novelist and playwright, says in the program is about "the power of one human being over another human being." The point is made in the play's first 30 seconds, and then restated every 30 seconds or so for the next hour and a half.
Abundant creative energy has been expended in the meticulous staging by Carey Perloff, American Conservatory Theater's artistic director. The translation by Erika Rundle is supple. Donald Eastman's super-white set screams obsessive-compulsive. David F. Draper's tasteful suburban couture reflects just the sort of manicured fashion sense a control freak like Mrs. Lemarchand would cultivate. And the tinkling bells in David Lang's music aptly suggest a saccharine jewel-box melody that might be coursing again and again through Mrs. Lemarchand's daffy circuitry.
Toned and coiffed, Karas cuts a striking figure as Mrs. Lemarchand. The character is well-mannered and spookily charmless. The actress affects an eerie, penetrating gaze, as if she spiked her double espressos with amphetamines. Although the play has three characters, it is essentially Mrs. Lemarchand's monologue, a laundry list of complaints, demands, threats and, most of all, rationalizations about her need to live through and with Hilda.
Most of her remarks are directed at Frank (Michael Earle), Hilda's stoic, blue-collar husband. (Hilda's sister, Corinne, played by Brandy Burre, makes an appearance late in the proceedings.) At one point, Mrs. Lemarchand caresses Frank's biceps, a sign that it's Frank over whom she really seeks control. Frank, in turn, seems to be paralyzed by her in ways that would only occur on a stage. When, for something on the order of the 99th time, Frank insists on speaking to his wife -- who's now living under lock and key -- Mrs. Lemarchand tut-tuts and puts him off with a shrug.
There is supposed to be some mystery stirred by Frank and his ambiguous responses to her. Still, the actor has little recourse but to stand there looking forlorn and troubled after comments by Mrs. Lemarchand such as, "I would find it unbearable if you and Hilda were to have sexual relations."
Whoa. Talk about cutting back benefits.
Hilda, by Marie Ndiaye, translated by Erika Rundle. Directed by Carey Perloff. Set, Donald Eastman; lighting, Nancy Schertler; costumes, David F. Draper; original music, David Lang. Approximately 90 minutes. Through Oct. 23 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.