There is no Hilda in Hilda. Like Godot or Sylvia the goat, Hilda remains an offstage presence in a play that bears her name. For the audience, she is an abstraction of domestic servitude—a maid who exists just out of sight, presumably carrying out chores in the upscale suburban home where she works. For her employer, the monstrous society lady Mrs. Lemarchand (Ellen Karas), Hilda represents an abstraction of a different kind—a possession to covet, control, and manipulate. French novelist Marie Ndiaye’s debut stage effort is a facile dissection of bourgeois iniquity that revels in its own facileness. The characters are deliberate caricatures; the plot is a one-note contrivance. The only thing more prominent than the diamond jewelry on Mrs. Lemarchand’s hand is the set of quotation marks that the playwright has permanently secured around this enjoyably grotesque villainess.
Structured as a series of verbal confrontations between Mrs. Lemarchand and Hilda’s blue-collar husband, Frank (Michael Earle), the play pits hyper-refined unction against monosyllabic brute force. “I’m fair, open-minded, and easygoing,” Mrs. Lemarchand coos by way of an introduction. Hilda is hired on the spot with the assurance that she’ll be treated as a member of the family, albeit one whose sole duties include cooking, taking care of the kids, and submitting herself to Mrs. Lemarchand’s icky overtures of friendship. Poor and thus powerless, Frank can do nothing but watch in horror as the Bergdorf bitch gradually denies him access to his own wife. The point of no return arrives when Frank is injured on the job and must accept Mrs. Lemarchand’s usurious offering of an advance on Hilda’s pitiful wages. In the end, class exploitation (and entitlement and hypocrisy and greed) knows no limitations, especially when it’s all airbrushed as “generosity.”
Hilda is essentially a one-woman show, and the note-perfect Ellen Karas brings such heightened artificiality to the role of Mrs. Lemarchand that she bypasses parody and enters the realm of surreal lunacy. As with any well-written Lucifer incarnate, she is equally seductive and repellent—a parasitic alien in human getup. In her more sympathetic moments, Mrs. Lemarchand exudes the self-pitying narcissism of Norma Desmond married to the maniacal desperation of Cruella de Vil. Ultimately, her true template could very well be the urbane crowds who would rush to see a punishing drama like this. “Mr. Lemarchand and I are liberals,” our protagonist explains, perhaps sincerely. Hilda had its Paris premiere in 2002, and makes its New York bow courtesy of the Act French festival. Though the dialogue has been translated into English, director Carey Perloff retains the play’s essential Frenchness with a white-box set that’s reminiscent of a Sartrean vacuum. To modify one of the great existentialist’s most famous quotes, hell is not only other people, but other people’s obscene amounts of money.