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Thursday, 22 October 2009 17:53

Broadway Review: "After Miss Julie" a Fresh Look at Strindberg

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After Miss Julie
Jonny Lee Miller and Sienna Miller in After Miss Julie
Photo: Joan Marcus

The new Roundabout production of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie adapted by Patrick Marber would make Strindberg proud.   Marber has set this play, written in 1888 in July 1945 at the end of the second world war.   It is the eve of the landslide victory by the British Labour Party over Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party; the workers against the aristocracy.  It tells the tale of a psychotic relationship between two members of different classes.  

John, played by Jonny Lee Miller,  is a servant to Miss Julie’s father, a Lord.  He’s traveled, curious and more learned than your usual man of similar class.  He is betrothed to another servant, one of the cooks, Christine.  Miss Julie is a snotty adult child of privilege.  To her, servants are things to be toyed with and bossed about at will.  Apparently, so was her ex-fiancé who has jilted her after being trifled with one too many times. 

Miss Julie is played by the lovely and talented Sienna Miller in her Broadway debut.  She endows her with a volatile and arbitrary temperament  that is at times lovely and sweet and other times wicked, masochistic and self-loathing.

Marin Ireland plays Christine, the mostly sweet-tempered cook in love with and engaged to John.  There is a harsher side to her character that is reminiscent of the character she played last season in Reasons to be Pretty (for which she received a Tony Award nomination).  She’s pissed at her man and she lets him know. 

What plays out between John and Miss Julie is an aggressive tango fueled by lust, passion and greed.  John begins to seduce Christine with a story about having seen her as a child and how he longed for her; he does this with Christine asleep at the desk.  Eventually, she awakens and begs her leave and goes to bed.

Miss Julie and John are left alone, let the tango begin.  Throughout the play they take turns being on top, with one verbally dominating the other and then alternating.  At times this even goes so far as physical violence and culminates in a passionate roll around the butcher block.  This play is in the naturalistic style of theatre wherein things are not fantastical but rather… well.. natural.  Unfortunately, this bogs down the play  particularly during the game of cat and mouse between John and Miss Julie.  There are protracted pauses that, rather than mirror natural behavior actually make it seem like time has slowed down. 

After Miss Julie

Jonny Lee Miller and Marin Ireland in After Miss Julie
Photo: Joan Marcus

The exception to this seems to be Ms. Ireland’s couple of scenes in which she has long bits of stage business alone on stage.  It includes making an abortifacient on a working stove to get Miss Julie’s dog to abort puppies after the gate-keeper’s pug has impregnated her.  She briefly stops to admire and pick lint off a suit of Johns that is hanging in the kitchen.  She sits at the corner desk and puts her make-up on.  These moments are rife with the potential to slow down the pace of the play.  Yet, Ms. Ireland’s performance doesn’t let that happen.  She manages to captivate you each time she does.  While she may seem sweet at first, once she learns that Miss Julie and John did the deed, hell hath no fury. 

Jonny Lee Miller is perhaps best known for his portrayal of the title character on TV’s “Eli Stone.”  He does an excellent job creating a character who keeps you guessing.  You start out believing that he is a true gentleman but end up thinking you never knew him at all.

Mark Brokaw has directed life into this piece by guiding his actors to exceptional performances.  The play has humor interwoven among the dark undercurrents.  The finely appointed recreation of a late 1800s estate kitchen, designed by Allen Moyer is replicated to perfection.  Mark McCullough’s lighting bathes the stunning set in contrasting rays of sunshine and the subtle lighting of a dark basement corner.
The beauty of the American Airlines Theatre is reason enough to go see a show at Roundabout.  Seeing a retake on a classic done with a fresh coat of paint by a talented team of creative professionals is the cherry on the cake.  It has its problems.  Setting it at the end of WWII and on the eve of the landslide victory by the Labour Party is a compelling idea.  While fitting neatly, it could have been explored a little more deeply. 


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Read the production credits at the Internet Broadway Database

Review Roundup:

Ben Brantley for The New York Times – “While Mr. Miller and Ms. Miller are undeniably attractive people, their Julie and John don’t seem terribly attractive to each other, a serious problem. There is one early moment of real erotic tension, when Julie extends her leg and asks John to kiss her shoe. Ms. Miller looks smug at first, then saucy, then distinctly uncomfortable and finally a bit frightened, as Julie wonders what she has let herself in for.”

Michael Kuchwara for The Associated Press – “there is a relentless quality to Sienna Miller's performance, not terribly subtle or vulnerable, but compelling in its obsessiveness. For anything more than the play's 90 minutes, her single-mindedness might prove too much, but director Mark Brokaw has paced the show nicely, so by the time the show's inevitable tragic ending arrives, we have had just enough of the title character's compulsive behavior.

Terry Teachout for The Wall Street Journal – “As for Ms. Miller, a model turned second-tier movie star, all she does is stalk around the stage striking vampy poses and looking really, really skinny. I almost felt sorry for her, but the truth is that she has no more business playing a classic stage role than I have posing for the cover of Vogue. The Roundabout Theatre Company should be ashamed of itself for asking her to do so.”

Robert Feldburg for The Bergen Record –“The beautiful British star of films and gossip columns gives it her emotional all, but the reservoir isn't very deep. Her repertoire of expressions is limited to haughtiness and neediness, which doesn't offer much opportunity for persuasiveness.”

Last modified on Thursday, 10 December 2009 21:36