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Savage Beauty: The Maids at City Center

Elizabeth Debicki and Cate Blanchett in The Maids at New York's City Center

At one point in the current production of Jean Genet’s The Maids at New York’s City Center, as Mistress offhandedly gifts her cherished red dress to her maid, Claire, she brags, “Alexander McQueen designed it for me personally, but so what?” Or something like that – I can’t check the quote because, obviously, Alexander McQueen doesn’t make an appearance in the original text; this is an interpolation by adapters Benedict Andrews (who also directed) and Andrew Upton.

It’s not a one-off; this a production determined to bring its material up to date, wrench it out of the class system and culture of mid-century France and situate it in our own, so that it “plays” once again, doesn’t feel like a period piece. So: Mistress’s bedroom is sleek and glass-walled; her commode, visible upstage, gleams whitely. And Mistress herself is played not as a wealthy matron, but as a strikingly beautiful young socialite, a woman not of the past but of the present, and the future, whose entitlement is all the more terrifying because her youth makes it more convincing that she will triumph.

So why, I wondered, were Claire and Solange, her titular maids, got up in the traditional French manner?

The Maids is, first and foremost, a play about role-playing. Claire and Solange, the maids, spend their days keeping Mistress’s world spotless, protecting her from the filth of life that they, inevitably, associate with themselves. By night, they take turns reenacting their own humiliation, taking turns playing maid and mistress in an recurring sadomasochistic ritual, culminating in the fantasy of finally doing away with their employer. When it works, the play simultaneously draws us into its games, making them feel real, and alienates us, makes us conscious of the degree to which we ourselves are playing out class and gender roles, and the degree to which the roles we wear trap and suffocate us.

Clothes are integral to those games, those roles; hence the rack of dresses and furs that crosses the entire stage, turning the whole apartment into a giant walk-in closet. But a French maid’s outfit, today, feels less like a signifier of class than a signifier of some kind of retro-kink, the kind of thing you might wear for a burlesque in Bushwick. Does he want us to take his whole story ironically?

Perhaps so. That would be one explanation for the acting style affected by Isabelle Huppert as Solange, which is all exaggerated gesture. Huppert skips about the enormous stage (nobody could quite feel trapped in this cavernous space, a real loss for a piece that should feel claustrophobic), waving her hands, wagging her head, and speaking in a thoroughly incomprehensible accent. It’s a thoroughly mannered performance intended, it would seem, to evoke the same past as her outfit.

But perhaps not, because we can also see Huppert’s face, thanks to another intrusion Andrews has introduced: roving cameras that project bits and snippets of the scene onto a giant video screen overhanging the stage. Now its a flower, now a shoe. And now it’s Huppert’s worn, lined, exhausted face, a face incompatible with irony. All that business, it seems, was acting – playing a part. The face is reality.

Or it could be Cate Blanchett’s face the camera catches, and then you’re really in for a treat. Blanchett plays Claire with a ferocity that recalls her bravura performance in “Blue Jasmine,” and then takes it way beyond. She careens from sneering condescension when Claire is imitating Mistress, to an almost Stockholm Syndrome-level submissiveness when Mistress arrives on the scene, without ever making us feel like she is “acting” – which is particularly scary because she, Claire, is acting, both when she’s playing Mistress and when he’s playing the meek mouse for Mistress. Apparently, says this play, we cannot even trust the most convincing performance of emotion.

Blanchett plays Mistress so well that, when the play opens, I was disoriented for a moment – because I knew that Mistress isn’t supposed to appear until about a third of a way through the play, and yet there she was. And then, when Mistress actually arrives, it becomes clear that her play-acting wasn’t generic; she captured her Mistress’s every tic and gesture. But there’s an extra layer here as well, because Elizabeth Debicki’s Mistress comes off as a younger, fresher, prettier, blonder, and, most alarmingly, taller (at 6’2″) version of Blanchett. Sometimes, it felt less like we’re watching a servant imitating her master, and more like a master of the art of acting imitating the latest hot young thing who’s taken all the good roles, and left her with the role of the maid.

In the end, I wasn’t sure what this production was trying to say – certainly not about the contemporary experience of class conflict in a domestic setting, which you would think would be an especially ripe topic at this moment in history. I don’t think the staging particularly served the performances; and though the video added an important layer to my perception of those performances, I also found it distracting.

But if I didn’t think too much about these directorial choices, and focused on the performances, particularly Blanchett’s, I didn’t worry anymore about what anyone was trying to say. Because it was being said so marvelously.

(That red dress, though? Didn’t look anything like an Alexander McQueen. Just saying.)

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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