Miss Julie: Theater Review
Neil LaBute takes on August Strindberg's most accessible work at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.
August Strindberg can be a tough nut: where Shakespeare and Ibsen can survive lesser efforts by dint of their intrinsic pertinence, a production of Strindberg stands or falls on how meaningfully his intense insights into human character and power relations can be conveyed to the sensibilities of a contemporary audience.
Having just suffered through a spate of bad Strindberg in Manhattan (Easter updated to 1959 Harlem, A Ghost Play assayed by an Asian cast), one had fair hope that in filmmaker and playwright Neil LaBute (The Shape of Things, Fat Pig, reasons to be pretty), the misogynistic Swede might find an empathetic adapter of perhaps his most accessible work, Miss Julie (1888), now in its world premiere mounting at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. Alas, as Strindberg understood so profoundly, sympathy alone will never suffice to achieve salvation from the hells we so lovingly craft for ourselves.
In this baronial kitchen setting it’s difficult not to draw distracting inferences of Fitzgerald’s East Egg. Upwardly mobile valet John (Logan Marshall-Green) reveals, perhaps deceitfully, his romantic longings since childhood for his master’s daughter Julie (Lily Rabe). However, his rather brutal seduction of her, conducted as his pregnant lover, the cook Kristine (Laura Heisler), dozes in the corner, effectively embodies Strindberg’s Darwinian convictions about the male sex drive.
In contrast with modern mores, 19th century Scandinavian society insisted on harsh consequences for those who transgress sexual and class rigidity. When Strindberg is done well, we can feel the ageless tug of the roots of our own behavior rather than the remoteness of ancient intolerance. For an audience unfazed by Girls (or for that matter, LaBute), the most piercing emotional moments for Miss Julie can appear, transiently, as risible, as they conspicuously did to some on opening night. The challenge remains to overwhelm our complacent sense of distance, which is not so fundamentally different from the smugly vulnerable confidence, whether on account of gender or station, of Strindberg’s characters.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle can be the language: as often translated, Strindberg’s can sound stilted in much the same way as the declamatory dialogue of his disciple, Eugene O’Neill, in his 1920s plays. With daring and probably foolhardy eccentricity, LaBute fashions his dialogue to fit the idiom of the theatrical period he has chosen. Thus, everyone speaks as if they were on a stage in 1929, and one can imagine in Rabe’s cultivated cadences echoes of how Helen Hayes or Lynn Fontanne would have sounded in the role at that time.
Director Jo Bonney (By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Geffen last season), an old LaBute hand, picks up his cue. Rarely these days does a production focus so intently on its diction, and the insolent musicality of Marshall-Green’s laboring class Noo Yawk accent can be something of a beauty in itself.
The unflinching Strindberg remains well worth flailing at in attempts to make him work, for despite all his deserved intellectual unfashionableness, he has much to tell us of value, not least because we are so disinclined to hear it. LaBute, as his distant descendent, understands this, and his valiant ambition recognizes his likely failure with an appealingly resigned gusto.
One can have experienced far too many Miss Julies and yet distill enough variation to find some enlightenment in this bedeviled effort, which nevertheless pales next to Stephen Sachs’ recent Dixie-set version at the Fountain Theatre. (The play has often been filmed; a Swedish version won the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1951, and Liv Ullmann is currently directing her own adaptation with Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell.)
Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (runs through June 2)
Cast: Lily Rabe, Logan Marshall-Green, Laura Heisler
Director: Jo Bonney
Playwright: August Strindberg, adapted by Neil LaBute
Set designer: Myung Hee Cho
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu
Costume designer: Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko
Sound designer: Vincent Olivieri