November 18, 2009

It's Hard to Warm Up to "After Miss Julie"

Every theater lover knows that Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, and August Strindberg are the holy trinity of modern drama.  But I have to confess that it hasn’t always been easy for me to love them. Maybe something gets lost in the translations.  In recent years, some good productions have brought me around on Chekhov. And I’ve begun slowly warming up to Ibsen too.  But Strindberg still leaves me cold.  Alas, seeing After Miss Julie, Patrick Marber’s reworking of Strindberg’s best known play, hasn’t helped.

A quick look at the grosses suggests that I’m not the only one feeling lukewarm about this Roundabout Theatre production which opened at the American Airlines Theatre earlier this month.  It was supposed to be a hot ticket. Strindberg’s Miss Julie tells the story of an aristocrat’s privileged daughter who seduces one of the household servants. The play’s power struggles involving sex and class would seem perfect for Marber who dealt with similar dynamics in his own Closer

Marber hews close to Strindberg's 1888 original, although he sets his version in post-World War II Britain when class lines there are beginning to collapse and he roughens up the language and the sex. What he does makes sense but the way the story unfolds just doesn’t.  And director Mark Brokaw does him no favors by directing the show with endless pauses that make the play seem far longer than its 85-minutes running time.

The casting of Sienna Miller (Jude Law’s former fiancée) as the title character and Jonny Lee Miller (Angelina Jolie’s ex-husband) as the manservant was supposed to add heat too.  Sienna Miller clearly wants to be taken seriously as an actress (click here to read a New York Times piece about her) and she gives it her all. But it’s just not enough.  She’s good at the sexy stuff but gets stuck when she tries to convey the inner turmoil that drives Julie to be so self-destructive. I kept imagining what an actress like the late Natasha Richardson might have done with the part in her younger days. 

Jonny Miller, on the other hand, worked for me, neatly capturing the ambivalence of a man trapped in reverence for the class system that he longs to bring down. Marin Ireland, the only non-Brit in the three-person cast, struggles with her accent but still manages to hold her own as the cook who is Jonny’s sweetheart and the only one of the three able to navigate the old order and the coming one.

Strindberg pioneered naturalism on stage and instead of placing his play in a fashionable drawing room, he purposefully set the action in the mansion’s utilitarian kitchen. Marber keeps it there and Allen Moyer's handsome set is perfect, as is Mark McCullough's subtle but evocative lighting.  David Van Tieghem gets extra credit for the smart sound design, which has to stand in for the off-stage noises of the other servants that this production has dropped, probably for budgetary reasons.

But even the savviest designs can’t save a production.  Or maybe, it’s just that I don’t like Strindberg.  Because I also didn’t care for his other well known work Dance of Death when I saw it back in 2002.  And it starred Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren. If they can’t heat up a show for you, then it's unlikely that anyone can.

1 comment:

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

We're in agreement on this one. The 85 minutes seemed like hours to me.