Patrick Marber’s apt idea for After Miss Julie, his updated spin on August Strindberg’s landmark 1888 drama Miss Julie now making its American premiere at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre, was to unfold the play at an English manor on the 1945 evening the Labor party took over the British government. But while the revision succeeds in paralleling the reshuffling of Great Britain’s eternally class-conscious system, the resulting production is not exactly revelatory in any way.
Played here on Allen Moyer’s impressive representation of an institutional-looking below-stairs kitchen, the work revolves around upper-class lady of the house Miss Julie (Sienna Miller), who puts the moves on chauffeur John (Jonny Lee Miller) during a raucous celebration. John eventually gives in to her advances, even though he’s engaged to fellow servant Christine (Marin Ireland) — who susses out the illicit situation but refuses to be undone by it.
Director Mark Brokaw production is initially quite effective, but as it proceeds — especially after Miss Julie and John have gone to his room to consummate their relationship, and after Christine has discovered them and later confronts him (none of which Strindberg strictly specified) — the mood switches from genuinely theatrical to histrionic. Among its more problematic moments are the killing of Miss Julie’s pet bird and its bloody aftermath (real and symbolic), which require a dramatic delicacy not entirely brought off by its leading lady.
Garbed in Michael Krass’ accurate notion of a 1940’s summer frock and shoes, Miller — who is making her Broadway debut here — doesn’t disgrace herself, but hers is a superficial Miss Julie, rather than a person of emotional depth. Part of the difficulty is that Miller simply doesn’t quite have enough control of her stagecraft to convincingly appear to-the-manor-born. Moreover, through much of the action, Miller gives the impression she’s studied Bette Davis during her Warner Brothers days, and she struts around the stage with the annoying one-foot-crossing-in-front-of-the-other walk that fashion models affect on runways.
As John, Jonny Lee Miller (also making his Broadway bow) fares much better, forging an imposing characterization. He assumes the bearing of a dedicated servant, constantly adjusting his shoulders in military fashion and practically clicking his heels. However, the actor’s take-charge manner is juxtaposed with the fear he quickly manifests when his unseen master rings. Tackling the black brogues he must polish, Miller is the portrait of a man who won’t entirely depart his station any time soon. Ireland — who continues to prove she’s one of the best actresses around — has a slight problem with her English accent, but brings substance and fire to the character, especially in the scene when she realizes she’s been betrayed by John.
While some audiences may be rightly bothered by Strindberg’s ultra-chauvinistic attitude toward women, the work nevertheless makes its point about class differences — suggesting by fade-out that Julie’s recklessness is ultimately more damaging to her as member of a social stratum whose hold on the population is weakening than it would be to a lower-class denizen.