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She’s a knockout, prowling down that steep stair in those savagely civilized heels, so poised and chic that you won’t quite know how to hate her.

Hate her you will, though, by the time Ellen Karas’ cripplingly concerned Mrs. Lemarchand has done her work—and not just because her brand of beneficence ultimately proves so poisonous. Hilda is the title of Marie Ndiaye’s fierce and often frustrating satire on the politics of personal power, and Hilda the name of the housekeeper that Karas’ upper-middlish madam all but devours, but the play is Mrs. Lemarchand’s, an acid look at what can happen when generosity cohabits too long with greed—and Ndiaye’s wondering rather pointedly whether this cobra’s slow venom won’t taste familiar in our mouths.

It’s an unsettling question, at least for the lefties in the audience: Do good intentions mean anything when acting on them serves our self-interest? Is charity still charitable if we congratulate ourselves on improving the recipient’s lot? Is a generous wage still generous if we expect gratitude—even love—along with the work we’re paying for?

Would that Hilda, camped out at the Studio Theatre on its way to an off-Broadway run, made something more unsettling out of it. But while the canny Karas turns in an eerily intense, impressively controlled performance in what’s essentially an 80-minute aria for her disturbed and disturbing character, Ndiaye—a Senegalese-French novelist for whom this 1999 effort was a first foray into the theater—serves up what can only be called a clumsily shaped stage piece. Her psychological inquiries may be incisive, but her dramatic instincts are blunt as can be.

Having coaxed brawny handyman Frank (a brooding Michael Earle) over to her place with the promise of an odd job, Mrs. L springs her trap: What she’s really after is Hilda, Frank’s underemployed other half—and not just because she needs help with the chores. “I’m told your wife is clean and in good health,” she purrs, and by the time she’s moved on to rhapsodize over Hilda’s name and her physique—never mind that they haven’t met—you and Frank both know something ain’t right with this dame. Which is part of the problem; Karas’ seductively watchable performance notwithstanding, Ndiaye’s too busy with bitter satire to bother making Mrs. Lemarchand the slightest bit real. Later on, when we’re asked to empathize a little with the loneliness and need that fuel her sociopathically possessive behavior, it’s all but impossible.

Poor Hilda we never do get to see—the playwright makes rather a labored point of her powerlessness in the face of fiscal realities. Frank’s, too: He’s constantly showing up to object to the ever-longer hours Hilda’s working, or to fret over her increasing alienation from her own children even as she cares for the three Mrs. L can’t bear to be around, but all it takes is a mention of money and he’s docile as a kitten. There’s a point there, perhaps, about the inherent cruelty of a lopsided economic relationship, but by the time Mrs. L has locked Hilda up in her own home and locked Frank out of her life, it’s a point that’s been made more often than strictly necessary.

Carey Perloff, head of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, directs with a spare precision, and Donald Eastman’s sharp-edged white-on-white set makes it look like Mrs. L’s living in Sarah Ruhl’s much tidier Clean House. (Female playwrights and their chilly, sterile women this season: Discuss.) And Karas is a calculating, controlling wonder, constantly revising tactics and strategy in a battle of wits that escalates into all-out psychological warfare.

But Ndiaye may be more invested in political posturing than in the actual characters she’s posturing in defense of, more interested in structural games (one of her early novels is written in one long sentence, and Mrs. L’s near-monopoly on Hilda is a kind of power play) than in a play structured to move audiences. The result is an ultimately empty exercise, a pointed argument whose point comes to feel painfully obvious.

“Meet the original desperate housewives,” squeals the Olney Theatre’s Web site about Morning’s at Seven, and really, if a marketing come-on that obvious isn’t enough of a warning, let me assist: John Going’s broadly unfunny staging is downright…what’s the word?…Oh, right: dire.

A gaggle of ancient sisters bicker and banter, attended by various dubious husbands and deficient nephews and dingbat fiancées, for something like 16 acts in Paul Osborn’s creaky 1939 comedy, but the fuss and the bother and the old-fashioned stagecraft aren’t really the problems; the play can apparently be made to work, as a best-revival Tony for the 2002 Broadway production attests. What makes Olney’s production so thoroughly unbearable is the sketch-comedy broadness Going and his oughta-know-better cast bring to the proceedings, especially in the crucial introductory goings-on. Eccentricities get semaphored, rivalries get painted in the boldest of strokes, and laugh lines get landed on with great significance. And by the time the Act 1 curtain closes on a family spasm meant to inspire a little sympathetic heartache, you’d be just as happy if somebody in this dysfunctional Midwestern clan picked up a shotgun and took a stab at sororicide.

Brief moments of less-than-awfulness attend an awkward pair of “young lovers” (they’re pushing 40) played with intermittent goofy charm by Paula Gruskiewicz and Andrew Polk. And real tenderness emerges in a final one-on-one between a set of sparring spouses (Halo Wines and James Slaughter) after long-simmering sisterly rivalries have nearly torn the family apart. And truth be told, once the play settles down and stretches itself a little, late into Act 2, it’s possible to see flashes of the sweetness and lyricism that must have attracted Olney to the story: These are good people, fumbling to find themselves in a time and place when existential crises weren’t especially in fashion, and there’s a kind of generous poetry in the way Osborn helps them sort each other out.

Going’s tone-deaf direction, though, his strained insistence on idiosyncrasy at the expense of individuality, makes of Osborn’s characters a set of caricatures defined only by their capital-Q quirks—and makes it all but impossible to care what becomes of them.CP