In a new production of Jean Genet’s ‘The Maids,’ it’s The Madame who steals the show

Ana Reeder and Jeanine Serralles. (Carol Rosegg.)
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In his intriguing staging of Jean Genet's classic play The Maids, director Jesse Berger has ignored the rows of seats in the Theater at St. Clement’s, opting instead to set up a few rows of folding chairs on risers surrounding a compact stage.

Dane Laffrey's set places the audience on all four sides of the bedroom where two maids are plotting the murder of their mistress. As the young women pace around the lavishly furnished room, onlookers gaze at them—and the people sitting opposite—through cutaway sections in the walls of their employer's boudoir.

Genet would probably have given his blessing to the staging, because Claire and Solange spend so much of their time worrying about prying eyes. They fear being spotted by the neighbors through the balcony doors as they try on Madame's clothes, or by being discovered by Madame herself while they act out scenes involving hurting or humiliating her. Placing the audience just outside underscores the feeling of claustrophobia that Genet was trying to create.

But Berger, who also serves as artistic director of Red Bull Theater, doesn't do much with the space he has created. After propping traditional theater's fourth wall back up, he only knocks it down again. When one actor whispers conspiratorially to the other, he has them gaze meaningfully toward the audience. It feel stagey and, frankly, a little amateurish.

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The Maids, which Genet loosely based on a real-life murder case, is a challenging piece. Rather than recount the details of the case, Genet imagines the heightened emotions that might lead two young women to commit such a heinous crime. Without a strong enough point of view from a director, the 1947 play can come across as overexcited or, as is the case here, tedious.

It doesn't help that the two actors at the center of play are a bit over their heads. As the seriously unbalanced servants, Ana Reeder and Jeanine Serralles seem to be in two different plays—the booming-voiced Reeder (very funny in Ethan Coen's Happy Hour) is in a Jacobean tragedy, while twinkly-eyed Seralles (who gave one of the last year's best performances as a faux-'50s housewife in Jordan Harrison's Maple and Vine) is in a light comedy. And neither seems to be in something by Genet.

And then J. Smith-Cameron enters the boudoir as Madame, wearing a headful of platinum-blonde ringlets and a wonderfully over-the-top gold gown. The only real tension in The Maids comes when it slowly dawns on Madame that her servants are up to something. With a voice as bubbly as champagne, Smith-Cameron makes Madame's offhanded comments about a key being moved or a powder on her dressing table sound poisonous.

Smith-Cameron, who has won awards for performances in Lend Me a Tenor and As Bees in Honey Drown, and who is married to the playwright and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan (and is known to movie fans for appearances in You Can Count on Me and Margaret), is fascinating from the first moment she steps into the room, playing Madame with a combination of acute self-awareness and painful self-delusion. She gets the tone exactly right, delighting in Genet's intentionally overwrought language but never letting it turn into a parody of itself. Reeder and Serralles are at their best when Smith-Cameron is onstage, and their acting becomes sharper and more focused.

But Madame is a secondary character, and in the end we're once again left alone with her servants. This is a play that should be gripping from beginning to end, but Red Bull's production only catches fire in the middle, before it's doused again.

The Maids is playing at the Theater at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. Tickets are $50 to $75 and are available at 212-352-3101, or on the web here.