Cate is Blanchett great in muddled ‘The Maids’

What’s the point of the film footage?

The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” which stars Cate Blanchett and is receiving a short, virtually sold-out run as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, shows how an experimental drama of the 20th century is not necessarily best served by experimental production values of the 21st century.

A disturbing meditation on role playing and class warfare, “The Maids” depicts two sisters who work as maids and, when their rich mistress is away, take over her bedroom, put on her fancy clothes and fantasize about murdering her. This English-language translation of the original French text is rampant with profanity.

With just three characters, the play works best in an intimate setting. Here, however, it has been uncomfortably planted into the 2,257-seat auditorium at City Center, creating a distancing effect.

But far more problematic and puzzling is the multimedia-based direction of Benedict Andrews, which places a jumbo-sized video screen on top of a glass box set design, upon which close-ups of the actors (who are being filmed live) are projected.

What’s the point of the film footage? Are we supposed to look at the actors or their images? Isn’t the absurdist play hard enough to understand on its own?

Blanchett is extraordinary as Claire — credibly and quickly shifting from aggressive authority to teary desperation. It’s hard to believe that Isabelle Huppert, who speaks with a thick accent, is Blanchett’s sister. Huppert is also far less showy in her performance style.

An unexpected surprise comes from Elizabeth Debicki, who hilariously portrays their mistress as a clueless, condescending and vile young girl.


If you go: “The Maids” plays at City Center through Aug. 16. 131 W. 55th St., nycitycenter.org

MATT WINDMAN. amNewYork theater critic