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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
By Jon Magaril
The play has always been catnip to actors. Lena Olin was incandescent in an Ingmar Bergman stage version. Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell will star on film for Liv Ullman. At the Geffen, Jo Bonney's production features three actors-on-the-rise: Lily Rabe (a Tony Award nominee and a nun possessed by the devil on American Horror Story), Logan Marshall-Green (with major roles in the Ridley Scott film Prometheus and James Franco's upcoming film of As I Lay Dying), and Laura Heisler (who was the best thing about the Geffen's recent Build).
The trio give accomplished and committed performances. And line by line, LaBute's crisp text hews closely and respectfully to the original. He's staked out his territory by shifting the time and place. Instead of a count's Swedish estate in the late 1880's, we're at a Long Island manor on Labor Day '29.
It's an enticing backdrop. The Jazz Age world of flappers with its prohibitions on liquor still exerts a powerful hold on our cultural imagination, as witnessed by the current hullaballoo over the new Baz Luhrmann extravaganza, The Great Gatsby. But further alterations are required to make these actors and the new circumstances a good fit for the old story.
As before, Julie is reeling from a break up with her fiance. During the servants' holiday party, with her father off the premises, she asks his valet John to dance with her. He'd promised to partner with Kristine the cook, with whom he's unofficially engaged. And even though Julie wants to be seen as just another person, an order's an order. Besides, John wants to move up in the world. Julie wants to come down. After the dance, he takes her back to his room.
Once they've had sex, John starts to make plans for their departure. He wants to run a hotel. She can be the hostess. When she lets him know she has no money of her own, those plans are off. But Julie believes she can never face her father again or the other servants who'll see her as “a whore.” For the rest of the play, she and John are stuck in a roundelay of hope-against-hope and gloom-and-doom.
And that's the sticking point for today's audience. We don't get the fuss over one tumble in the sack. In the class-oriented Swedish society at the end of the nineteenth century, most would have shared Julie's belief that her life's course had changed irrevocably by sleeping with the servant. Times of course have changed. Even if a production kept the original context, that world would need to be depicted with great specificity for a contemporary audience to identify with the depths of despair Julie sinks to.
And LaBute doesn't give us that world. He gives us one more commonly associated with devil-may-care attitudes.
Julie enters bra-less in a thoroughly modern flapper dress wanting to dance. When she slips back into archaic beliefs on sex and class, it's difficult to understand why. Her final walk up the stairs carries a sense that she's going to the gallows. It may bring to mind the stock market crash that we know is only two months away, if we put some stats from the program and the play together. But there's little in the text or production that aligns her fundamentally with the kind of privileged folk who will soon jump from their windows.
Julie is an individual, not a type. Her mother had been a social renegade who'd never wanted to be married. She let Julie run wild, even dressing her as a boy so she'd feel equal to everyone else. So Julie is caught boomeranging between classes and sexual identities. In this production, her inability to rise above those distinctions comes off as personal weakness or even mental instability rather than a commonly held belief.
Many of director Jo Bonney's choices make empathizing with Julie's despair even more difficult. The tone is hard to get a fix on from the very start. Myung Hee Cho's beautiful grey-and-white kitchen set seems right out of an old screen screwball comedy and so do the actor's accents. Marshall-Green and Heisler sound “New Yawk.” Rabe's usual speaking voice is already a throwback, sounding like Jean Arthur of such golden oldies as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Here, she pushes her mid-Atlantic tones even farther towards the English isles. It all sounds a like a recipe for light comedy.
The actors provide humor for a long while. Marshall-Green brings a deft, light touch to his valet. Tall, thin,and attractive, he has the looks of Ashton Kutcher and the physicality of Dick Van Dyke's butler in Fitzwilly. In most other productions the character is a primal, masculine force. Marshall-Green provides moments of darting physical assurance, but overall his John is boyish, with a body center that's closer to his neck than his groin.
Rabe exhibits more emotional and physical daring. But she still comes off as naturally self-sufficient. Her Julie seems the aggressor in the relationship. When she grows desperate, it elicits laughs from some in the audience because it plays as manipulation. And her final moments, with razor in hand, are more confusing than tragic. We never understand what drives her actions.
More traditional casting might have helped LaBute's adaptation land more successfully. But I'm intrigued by what might have happened if he'd played more fast and loose with the text. His leanings, along with those of these three actors, tend to run cooler than Strindberg. And recent, free adaptations of the play have been successful. Yael Farber's Mies Julie, a page one rewrite transplanting the story to contemporary South Africa, was bracingly persuasive in its US premiere last fall. Miss Julie: Freedom Summer also focused convincingly on racial differences in Stephen Sachs' version, which used the American South in 1964 as its setting. I'm sorry I missed Ken Roht's gender-bent Miss Julie(n), which also used the American South, circa the dawn of the twentieth century.
But none of those made the shift to comedy. A jazzy Miss Julie that boldly puts the screws to both screwball comedy and Strindberg could be fascinating. After all, LaBute as a director mashed-up farce and drama to good effect in the film Nurse Betty. The current production is alas more of a muddle, with fascinating elements that refuse to mesh.