The drudgery endured by an unseen title character is all too close to the viewer’s experience with “Hilda,” acclaimed French-Senegalese novelist Marie Ndiaye’s first play. Making its U.S. debut under A.C.T. auspices in San Francisco, the 2002 work is a labored treatise on power and servitude that hammers home its obvious points with numbing repetition. Text’s appeal to director Carey Perloff doesn’t translate, and her hardworking thesps are put through considerable labor with little reward.
Ndiaye has since written other, presumably more successful plays at home (she’s only the second female playwright to have joined the Comedie Francaise’s repertory). She calls “Hilda” — which started life as a radio play — “like a novel with only dialogue,” which pinpoints the problem quite well. Her text is basically one burdensome chunk of prose, shouldered by a single character who’s a caricature from the start, and who thus provokes little reaction beyond exasperation as she grows more and more lunatic.
While this kind of one-note metaphorical screed might work in another medium, onstage it’s deadly — and it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment for the actors involved.
On opening night Ellen Karas struggled heroically to shoulder her outlandish load of verbiage as Mrs. Lemarchand, a brittle, artificially cheerful, upper-class wife and mother who seems emotionally divorced from those and all other social roles.
She lures lumberyard worker Frank (Marco Barricelli) over to her home on the pretext of handyman work, then flummoxes him by revealing her real intent: She requests, nay demands, that Frank send his wife, Hilda, hither the next morning to assume nanny and housekeeping duties. Mrs. L. has already arranged the daycare into which Hilda’s children will now be shuttled. This will obviously be a sacrifice, but the lady knows a second source of income will prove too great a temptation for the struggling poorer family to resist.
In successive, overlong scenes, Mrs. L. emasculates Frank, graduating from silvery condescension to blackmail, neediness and hysteria. Hilda begins to disappear from her own family life, leaving spouse and kids in crisis.
Yet even this absorption into service isn’t enough for the employer, who whines to Frank that Hilda “refuses to keep me company” and so forth. Empty, manipulative and alienated from every normal relationship, the lady of the house expects to be loved for her $15 per hour.
There’s an interesting idea to be explored here — how liberal bourgeois guilt insists on the illusion of gratitude and friendship from those classes it exploits. But “Hilda” is a dirge of little tonal or narrative variation, a Pinteresque work completely lacking his linguistic economy.
The same dynamic between domineering Mrs. L. and bewildered, beaten-down Frank established in the first moments is there in the last, its amplitude just a bit cranked up.
Lemarchand’s hypocrisies are hamfistedly obvious, and her white-glove-test hostess demeanor is a cartoon that permits no real sense of pathos or tragedy. Karras ekes as much astringent humor from the role as possible, but ultimately it’s a thankless task.
The formidable Barricelli is wasted in a monosyllabic, purely reactive role whose drab realism just doesn’t work alongside his co-star’s Stepford Wife exaggeration.
A thankful if rather small shift in tale’s late going is provided by the appearance of Lauren Grace as Corinne, Hilda’s tough sister.
Donald Eastman’s ominously sterile, off-white set is a striking plus amidst the well-turned design contributions.