“I act by subterfuge,” Niamh Cusack’s Claire announces early in “The Maids,” to which one’s reply over the course of the evening comes to be, “If only.” Jean Genet’s 1947 play depends upon nuance, cunning and sexual intrigue to animate a lethal erotic roundelay that has inspired such writers as Edward Albee (indirectly) and Wendy Kesselman (very directly). John Crowley’s Donmar Warehouse revival is gorgeously designed and lit — its seductions are all in the design — but slack where it matters most: at the murderous, passionate heart of one of 20th-century theater’s most dangerous liaisons.
David Rudkin’s ornate translation was first used for a Royal Shakespeare Company production in 1988 in which, following Genet’s own wishes, men played all three roles. There’s a subversive logic and power to swapping gender in a play about shifting identities, sexual stealth and various kinds of political, religious and social revolt. But Crowley’s staging not only plays it straight, as it were; he also plays it dully. One gets more of a charge from Rick Fisher’s sculptured lighting and Tim Hatley’s (“Stanley”) high-walled Louis XV set than ever emerges from the games-playing servants who make theatricality their true mistress.
Claire and Solange are wonderful roles for performers who work by insinuation, but they cannot withstand the frontal attack on offer here. Throwing herself around Our Lady’s boudoir like some Tennessee Williams voluptuary (she speaks the ripe syntax to match), Cusack doesn’t possess the quicksilver allure for a temptress unsure where the charade ends and the path toward damnation begins. As Claire’s part-rival, part-accomplice, a stolid Kerry Fox lacks the febrile wit for Solange, whose talk of “descending the great staircase” marks her out as a Gallic Norma Desmond.
Arriving late in the play to show up both leads is Josette Simon’s willowy, sorrowful Our Lady, whose fondness for enveloping mink recalls the same actress’s minx-like (and career-making) Maggie several years back in Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall.” Glimpsed infrequently since, Simon makes a welcome return to the London stage, committing the onstage theft of the evening in a staging too muted even to qualify as criminal.