Elizabeth Ashley has audiences rapt as a Machiavellian maid in Jeremy Sams' slight but deft play.
If it's Elizabeth Ashley who's doing the dishing, you might be ineluctably inclined to lap every last word -- just as "The Man" (Jon David Casey) does in Hartford Stage's premiere of Zerline's Tale, Jeremy Sams' deft, 70-minute adaptation of a story drawn from Hermann Broch's 1950 novel The Guiltless. Hartford Stage's artistic director Michael Wilson, who has worked extensively with Ashley before, has pulled together all the necessary elements to provide this skilled actress with an odds-on chance to shine; and not surprisingly, Ashley makes the most of the opportunity, lending surprising depth to this admittedly slight summation of a seemingly unremarkable life suffused with desire.
True, Ashley's signature purr has been tamped down to equal parts whiskey and wheeze. But she's still got it -- that insistent sensuality that has informed her vast body of stage and film work over the past near-half-century. And when Zerline (a character whom Broch borrowed from Mozart's Don Giovanni) recounts the feints and reversals of her youthful affair with one "Herr von Juna" -- the very father of the Baroness' now-adult bastard --you'll be rapt.
We've met Machiavellian maids before, from Sheridan's saucy wenches to Lorca's lugubrious oracles, but Zerline is in a class apart -- not only smarter than her supposed betters, but more passionate and proud. Among the more indelible images she imparts is a moment when she's sharing Juna's carriage for a teasing tryst and dares him to kiss her raw and reddened "washerwoman's hands." Instead, his lips graze her wrists, an affront for which he'll ultimately pay.