New York City Theater
"After Miss Julie"
American Airlines Theater
“Power,” Henry Kissinger once famously said, “is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Sex, class, communication, control and, of course, power are the elemental isotopes that fuel “Oleanna” and “After Miss Julie,” two explosive revivals now on Broadway. If they aren’t completely fulfilling as productions – they’re fevered but unemotional, serious but not tragic -- they do at least ignite.
Both long one-acts deal with the use and misuse of lust, that let’s-not-mention-it factor subverting what some call the purity of relationships. In “Oleanna,” a female student goes to her college professor for help and ends up accusing him of attempted rape. In “After Miss Julie,” a lady to the manor born seduces her father’s servant, then threatens to accuse him of rape. No, these are not G-rated shows.
David Mamet’s “Oleanna” deals with John, distracted because at the moment he’s dealing with being granted tenure, buying a house and worrying about family. Carol goes to him for academic help. She says she just doesn’t understand the course. He says he’ll assist her; all she has to do is meet with him, work with him to be guaranteed an “A.” When she gets agitated, he puts his hands on her shoulders.
Out of such seemingly innocuous words and gestures comes a payload of recriminations and violence. She abhors his attitude; he’s impatient with her questions. These are people who cannot communicate because they misinterpret what’s being said. When he tries to explain his background, she takes it as condescension. When she tries to explain hers, she’s inarticulate. Getting personal is a trap.
In Mamet’s clipped world, sentences are elided and tension is unending. In Doug Hughes’ production, some of that tension seems artificial, not helped by a too realistic set. Although the play still stings, neither Bill Pullman’s John nor Julia Stiles’ Carol (both excellent actors) build their characters. We don’t get to know them before sparks fly, resulting in more chill than heat.
Also blowing hot and cold is “After Miss Julie.” August Strindberg’s salacious shocker, adapted and modernized by Patrick Marber. Moved from Sweden to Britain, from the 19th to the 20th century, Marber positions his fire-and-brimstone characters on July 26, 1945, the night the Conservative Party lost to the Labour Party.
Representing the former is Miss Julie herself, spoiled, rich and hot-to-trot. She has her eye on John, the sexy valet/chauffeur engaged to the household cook. He, it turns out, has always had an itch for Miss Julie though, of course, from afar. Playing dangerous games around lethal knives, razors and a butcher block, the two may as well be in an abattoir as a kitchen.
Their couplings are animalistic and primitive. As the two attractive predators, Sienna Miller as Julie and Jonny Lee Miller as John don’t so much enjoy as devour each other. Although we’re spared the actual act, they leave little to the imagination and both Millers (no relation) attack the roles with blowtorches under Mark Brokaw’s alternately stately and cunning direction. As Christine, the frustrated, religious cook, Marin Ireland seethes with a desire that she channels into quiet fury.
The sexual battles in “Oleanna” and “After Miss Julie” generate enough tension to get audiences over the slow spots. Both end badly, in pain and humiliation and regret. “Do you know what you’ve worked for?” asks one character. “Power. For power.” So it goes. Just read the papers.
David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 1, 2009