CAMBRIDGE — When David Adjmi’s “Marie Antoinette’’ gets underway, we assume it’s only a matter of time before the title character will utter the infamous phrase that history has long (mis)attributed to her. And sure enough, out it comes near the end of the first scene.
But when Marie drawls “Oh, let ’em eat cake’’ from beneath her sky-high wig, she is not referring to the poor, hungry, and increasingly restive citizens of 18th-century France. Rather, she is offering flippant advice to an aristocratic, tea-sipping friend whose children have been clamoring for sweets.
No matter the situation, and she faces quite a variety, the young queen is seldom at a loss for words in “Marie Antoinette,’’ an uneven tragicomedy now receiving its world premiere at Loeb Drama Center in a co-production by American Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theatre, directed by Rebecca Taichman.
Brooke Bloom delivers a witty performance as Marie, endowing her with a snarky “Whatever’’ affect. Yet Bloom’s Marie comes across as more oblivious than mean-spirited, a pawn in a deadly, rapidly unfolding contest she can’t recognize or understand, much less play with any real skill. A measure of self-awareness does eventually dawn, but by then it’s far too late. The luxury-loving queen has become a despised symbol to the bloody-minded revolutionaries whose ostensible goal is “Liberty, equality, fraternity,’’ and the guillotine awaits.
Adjmi can wield a pretty sharp blade himself. His new play makes a few incisive points about income inequality and the entitlement mentality of the wealthy, which you’d expect from the writer of “Elective Affinities.’’ A provocative idea bubbles up from the absurdist stew of “Marie Antoinette’’: namely, that democracy is a sham, and that power, as one character suggests, is a force that is invariably concentrated, not shared.
I wish Adjmi had focused more of his creative energies on exploring and dramatizing the implications of that notion, because there are stretches where “Marie Antoinette’’ goes slack, bogged down by glib, jokey exchanges that creak like an underdeveloped “Saturday Night Live’’ sketch.
When Marie prepares to flee Versailles, King Louis XVI (Steven Rattazzi) actually says to her: “We need to keep our heads.’’ When Louis asks his queen what she said to an angry mob, she replies that she told them: “ ‘I feel your pain.’ ” The recycled Clintonism lands with a thud. A quarrelsome scene between Marie and her brother, Emperor Joseph of Austria (Fred Arsenault) is equally flaccid; it feels tacked on for the sake of exposition.
Her flirtatious relationship with Fersen (Jake Silbermann), a dashing young nobleman, generates more comic spark (“Nice epaulets,’’ Marie tells him) and, eventually, dramatic power. Fersen refers to Marie as a butterfly, an image reinforced by the bright yellow patterns of Riccardo Hernandez’s set and deftly underscored by Karole Armitage’s choreography when the queen is being changed by attendants from one elaborate costume to another. Released from her royal attire, the trapped butterfly seizes the chance to dance and to be herself, for a precious few moments of freedom.
Of course, hers is a life of unexamined assumptions and unearned privilege, but Bloom wins a measure of sympathy for Marie, who was brought to France at the age of 14 to marry the callow, hapless Louis. As a guard is brutally cutting her hair, Marie tries to explain that she was given no choice in determining her fate: “I was built to be this thing, and now they’re killing me for it,’’ she says. It’s self-justifying, yes, but it also feels poignantly true.
Apart from Marie, the most compelling figure onstage is nonhuman: an all-knowing sheep, silkily voiced by David Greenspan. Indulging a pastoral fantasy, the queen is playing shepherdess to a flock that consists of sheep mannequins with red bows around their necks. Greenspan’s sheep initiates a chat with the queen — it won’t be their last conversation — during which he warns Marie of the people’s growing hostility. “Oh, they’re always angry,’’ she replies. “That’s not a barometer of anything.’’
Except, of course, that it is. The long-brewing revolutionary storm arrives with shocking suddenness, conjured by Taichman in a coup de théâtre that puts an explosive exclamation point on the end of Marie’s world.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.