Neil LaBute goes overboard in his adaptation of August Strindberg's classic.
The play Miss Julie is a cipher; for generations scribes have transformed the 1888 story of class and gender struggles by resetting its time period and location. LaBute has pushed his version to 1929, set in a Long Island estate. Julie (Rabe), a flamboyant party-girl debutante, plays sexual-conquest games with the valet, John (Marshall-Green). Though he is engaged to the cook, Kristine (Heisler), John allows his mistress to toy with him, eventually turning the tables on her.
The play is a volatile work, and one that was successfully adapted by Stephen Sachs at the Fountain Theatre in 2006, setting it in the American South with a mixed-race cast. During his career, LaBute often finds the key to the war of the sexes in such explosive plays as Some Girls and Bash, but here the chemical reaction of the two experts leads to histrionics. The people represented here are ruthless and insufferable. They go from "I love you!" to "I hate you!" to "Kill me!" to "Come with me!" so much that one wishes mood stabilizers had been around in 1929 — or at least a heavy mallet.
Jo Bonney, who directed LaBute's Fat Pig at the Geffen, finds a way to make the characters accessible by casting the ethereal Rabe as the heroine. With an affected Bryn Mawr accent and an unstable demeanor, Rabe digs into Julie's loneliness, rebelliousness, and lack of direction. Feeding off the knowledge of her mother's insanity, Rabe tries to understand Julie's haunted mind. Marshall-Green is at his smarmy best as the rapscallion valet. Rawly sexual and opportunistic, he is cruelly perfect as Julie's foe. With saucer eyes that see and judge everything, Heisler's Kristine is the play's moralistic center, hypercritical yet hypocritical. Reminiscent of the '50s housewife who knows her husband is a cad, this woman's drive to maintain the status quo overwhelms her desire to seek justice.
The set, constructed by Myung Hee Cho, is striking: a grey-walled kitchen offset by porcelain-white brick, pots, and china.
This production of Miss Julie is an achievement of a wise director and cast who don't allow an ugly adaptation to pollute their portrayals. Though there is putridity to the play's surroundings, a troupe of game players step it up to keep the audience intrigued.