Miss Julie is August Strindberg’s 1888 drama about a Swedish aristocrat into kinky sex who has a class-defying one-night stand with her father’s manservant and then kills herself out of some mix of shame, desperation, regret and simple psychosis. It was scandalous in its time—and was apparently banned in many places—because of its frank treatment of sex.
After Miss Julie is Miss Julie as adapted by the English playwright Patrick Marber, who modernizes the story—well, “modernizes” the story—to England in 1945, on the night of Labor’s landslide electoral victory.
In other words, instead of being a story about century-old Swedish class mores and no-longer-particularly taboo sex, it is a story about half-century-old English class mores and no-longer-particularly taboo sex. No wonder it was rapturously received in London when it was presented at the Donmar Warehouse in 2003. Brits, after all, care about British class issues.
New Yorkers, however, mostly do not, and that makes for a sometimes wearying 90 minutes.
Miss Julie and her father’s chauffeur, John, dance together (scandalously, for its time and place) and dance around each other, alternatingly seducing and condemning each other, alternatingly confessing love for each other and reveling in power over the other. They plot to run off together; they plot to abandon each other. Not unlike in the current revival of Oleanna, a key point of tension doesn’t exist for the audience—there, campus gender politics, here British class issues—and we’re left instead with a study in manipulation, a question of who is using whom.
Sienna Miller, the intriguing indie film star making her Broadway debut, is well cast in the role, lovely, radiant and blindingly blond, an upper-crust femme fatale with perfect posture and better diction. She’s histrionic in the play’s second half, but, then, so is the character. She never really seems out of control, however; never seems to be actually mad. Instead, she seems like a confident girl in over her head, a manipulator who’s been out-manipulated.
Jonny Lee Miller, also in his first Broadway appearance, is her lover and antagonist, dark, handsome, brooding and magnetic. He acquits himself better, cleanly moving from a servant’s deference to a charmer’s seduction to a resentful servant’s sadistic pleasure in power. Marin Ireland—who dominated in Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty last season—is impressive as Christine, the house’s cook and John’s long-suffering common-law fiancée. She manages to hold the audience’s attention through a meticulously choreographed lengthy silent scene in which she cleans up her kitchen after having been left behind by John and Miss Julie, dutifully folding clothes, then primping herself, then growing bored and eventually falling asleep.
Elsewhere in Mark Brokaw’s direction, though, the pacing can seem off—the first half of the short play seems to drag on interminably. Allen Moyer’s detailed set of a country-house kitchen—complete with running water and working stove—puts a ceiling on the room, effectively dropping the proscenium height by nearly half and creating out of the otherwise sprawling kitchen more of a pressure cooker. Mark McCullough’s lighting is remarkably detailed, shifting the world outside the kitchen from night to day and bathing the crazed lovers in their own glow, even when the set around them is shadowy and menacing.
As the play ends, Miss Julie walks out of the kitchen, into that blazing morning sun, implicitly to slit her own throat. She’s been humiliated by a servant, which in mid-century England might have been horrifying. But in new-century New York, posh accent or not, it’s hard to care.
AVENUE Q WAS already in a low-rent neighborhood—its protagonist, the recent-college-grad puppet Princeton, armed with only a B.A. in English and an ambition to find a purpose, tells his new neighbors that he’d started his apartment hunt on Avenue A and kept going till he found a place he could afford—but the economic downturn has thrown it, like many others, out of its home and into a cheaper one. After six years and change on Broadway, it closed last month at the Golden Theatre and then reopened last week Off Broadway at New World Stages.
The new production feels lower-rent, too. Maybe because of the size of the venue, or the size of the orchestra, or just the several-replacements-later nature of the cast, it lacks some of the excitement of the original. But—and here’s the Sesame Street–suitable happy ending—it’s still utterly delightful.
Even six years later, the show is still gleefully subversive—you never quite get used to Muppet-style puppets fucking—and still hilarious. (It should be noted, however, that Anika Larsen, who plays Princeton’s two love interests, the winsome Kate Monster and the vampish Lucy and is a veteran of the final Broadway cast, could belt to the back row of the biggest Broadway house.) The songs (by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, with book by Jeff Whitty) are, if anything, better: not just tuneful melodies with witty lyrics, but, in a few cases, now genuine members of the show-tunes canon. (At least, so says any weekend at Marie’s Crisis.)
Best of all—and rare in the Theater District this season, with its 1920s revivals and 1980s revivals and updates to 1945—it still speaks to life in this city today, remains an honest and wistful look at being a New Yorker in your 20s. It’s still hard to find an apartment, and a purpose; there’s still a fine, fine line between a lover and a friend; and—as Eugene Jerome would no doubt be thrilled to know—the Internet is still for porn.
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