Lovely to look at and sexy as hell, Craig Lucas’ new adaptation of Strindberg’s 1888 drama “Miss Julie” brings a certain lyrical grace to the squalid psychosexual games played by a headstrong aristocrat and her father’s valet. But while handsomely choreographed for two attractive thesps, this confrontational mating dance has a modernist slant that disregards the class dynamics sparking the energetic coupling between mistress and servant. Contempo attack may be more liberating for actors, but it misses the sizzle of forbidden sex in Strindberg’s hidebound Victorian times.
Looks mean a lot in helmer Anders Cato’s visually snazzy production. Aside from the raw animal carcass hanging from a meathook, the kitchen of the manor house where Miss Julie (Marin Hinkle) gets up to mischief with the family valet (Reg Rogers) could make the cover of a modern nesting mag. John McDermott’s sleek set design features a country-chic antique stove and industrial steel table and chairs that make a mighty din when trashed during the Midsummer Eve festivities in which Swedish aristocrats and their servant drones traditionally mingle and make merry as equals.
Handsomer still are the top-lined players in this smart setting. Hinkle has the angular grace and refined features to play the aristocratic heroine, and costumer Olivera Gajic has dressed her in appropriately romantic rags. (Although it makes no sense that this repressed virgin would prance around the stage in her underwear after being ravished by a servant.)
Rogers strikes an equally fine figure as Jean, the ambitious dreamer of a valet who views Miss Julie as his meal ticket into the upper-class society he both yearns for and despises. Rough-edged and brutal beneath his proper manners, this Jean projects the sexy combination of peasant and poet that would appeal to this Miss Julie.
The lyricism of Lucas’ adaptation gives this pair a common language, and the physical assertiveness of Cato’s production gives them a sturdy platform for their sexual games. If Miss Julie doesn’t literally ask to be raped, her high-heeled boots and wanton manner certainly speak the language.
But that’s as far as this production is willing to go in probing the levels of meaning in Strindberg’s feverish drama. For all the sexual heat they generate, neither Miss Julie nor Jean reveals the complex social dynamic that makes their sexual antics so inappropriate — or so dangerous. With both characters radiating modern sensibilities (and with so little sense of Victorian time or place generated by the production style), there are no convincing class differences for them to transcend.
In this egalitarian context, Jean’s dream of running away to Switzerland with mistress Julie doesn’t seem at all ludicrous. Nor does Miss Julie’s sexual baiting of him come across as the thoughtless game it is.
In the nowhere world they inhabit, they could be a couple of hot numbers playing sexual roulette and having a grand time at it. Which, in fact, is what this handsome but shallow production winds up saying for itself.