Sienna Miller is out of her depth, making her dance of power and death an unaffecting tragedy.
That’s some handsome country kitchen Allen Moyer has designed for “After Miss Julie,” with its chunky farm table, its sideboard stacked with Wedgewood and its oven range fringed by hanging copper pots and hissing steam. Pity there’s so little cooking in Mark Brokaw’s enervated production. Like Strindberg’s play, Patrick Marber’s blunt postwar-English update of the 1888 drama about class and sex requires an actress capable of negotiating wild swings and reversals. But Sienna Miller is out of her depth in the title role, making her dance of power and death an unaffecting tragedy.
Classic Scandinavian drama has taken a beating in New York of late. One of its hallmarks is the airlessness of a society that pushes its desperate female characters to almost pathological extremes of self-destructive behavior. Like Cate Blanchett and Mary-Louise Parker in recent maulings of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” (written two years after “Miss Julie”), Miller substitutes posturing for believable panic or psychological insight, which dulls the play’s bitter sting.
In addition to all that rustic charm, the kitchen is dominated by a row of bells, connecting the domestic hub to every corner of the country estate. The inescapable master-servant divide is heightened in Marber’s version of the play, first seen as a 1995 BBC telefilm and then onstage at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2003.
Marber shifts the action from Midsummer’s Eve in late 19th century Sweden to England on July 26, 1945, the night of the Labour Party’s landslide victory that supposedly decreed the obsolescence of the old class system. We don’t need to learn of Miss Julie’s disgust over the impregnation of her pampered pooch by the gatekeeper’s mutt to know that upstairs and downstairs are not destined to interbreed smoothly.
However, Miss Julie clearly likes a bit of rough, and as election-night revelers celebrate in the main house, she slinks into the kitchen to put the moves on chauffeur John (Jonny Lee Miller), right under the nose of his dowdy unofficial fiancee, Christine (Marin Ireland), the household cook.
While Miss Julie gets her way, post-coital escape fantasies are quickly soured by reality. According to John’s double standard, it’s fine for a working-class chap to acquire some gentlemanly affectations, but not for the young mistress of the house to do the reverse. “The rich should never sell themselves cheap,” he says. “They try to act common, they become common.”
Stoical Christine just wants her superiors to be people she can respect, so while she may be willing to overlook John’s transgression, her moral rigidity forbids her from remaining under her employer’s roof.
Sienna Miller looks smashing as the wayward aristocrat, but this is a complex character fraught with contradictions, and she comes off simply as a loony tart whose cat-and-mouse games careen out of control.
We learn from the text that she’s smarting from the rejection of an officer; that she’s the conflicted child of an emancipated mother, who also liked to fraternize with the help, and a chilly father who’s a bigwig in Labour but barely tolerates the lower classes.
In the actress’s shouty, stiffly artificial performance, Miss Julie’s hurt and confusion read mostly as the arrogant willfulness of a spoiled rich girl, which is one aspect of the character but nowhere near the full picture. The role calls for head-spinning transitions — from imperious to weak, from cruel to masochistic, from repressed virgin to manipulative siren, from self-possessed modern woman to self-hating, entrapped victim of her class. None of this is rendered here with coherence or emotional truth.
Jonny Lee Miller is more commanding, neatly countering subservience that dates back generations with a cocky insubordination stoked by Miss Julie’s overtures and by the freshly turning political tide. He also balances his long burning love for her with a colder pragmatism; John is tantalized and seduced by the idea of an elevated future but too ambivalent to make it happen.
Always a flinty actress who excels at conveying inner resolve, Ireland struggles with a dodgy accent (Yorkshire?) and is wrong for the role of miserable, religious Christine. However, she hits more effective notes once everything is out in the open, scoffing with caustic detachment at John’s and Miss Julie’s delusions.
Marber’s writing frequently trades in emotional devastation, so he should be at home with Strindbergian despair. But the play’s themes are overstated, perhaps more so due to the central performance. The production lurches uncertainly between naturalistic presentation and bombastic melodrama without getting comfortable in either register. The grotesque scene late in the action in which Miss Julie goads John into sacrificing her pet canary rather than leaving it behind becomes ludicrous in its overripe symbolism.
There’s nothing in the production to match the subtlety and sadness of Mark McCullough’s lighting as it moves delicately from night into stark, confronting daylight. Brokaw puts the actors somewhat effortfully through their paces, and the many weighted silences just hang there because the words surrounding them too often sound hollow.