The promotional picture for the Yale Rep’s latest production promises Harlequin novel-esque bodice-ripping. “Miss Julie,” based on the 1888 play by August Strindberg, begins with a mutually satisfying one-night-stand between the titular protagonist (Yvonne Woods) and her father’s valet, Jean (Peter Macon). Like a good romance novel, the play uses the possibility of further liaisons to keep things spicy.
Unfortunately, “Miss Julie,” directed by Liz Diamond, falls flat. Those who are lured in by the racy poster image will likely find the abundance of dry humping inadequate to make up for the abysmal plot. Those who come to the production in order to enjoy a dramatic classic may be disappointed by the cumbersome Rep-style revamping of Strindberg’s narrative.
The key point of this reinterpretation is the creative decision to cast an African-American as Julie’s lover, Jean. This change may have been an inspiring one had the fraught political and cultural implications been explained, enumerated or even hinted at beforehand. Inexplicably, the aforementioned “sexy” ad leaves the audience in the dark about this plot alteration by showing an older, hairier and, well, lighter-skinned actor portraying Jean. Strindberg’s tight play, which lasts about 90 minutes and has no intermission, is simply not equipped in its original form to bear the burden of this complex “Othello” homage.
“Miss Julie” consists mostly of Julie’s interactions with Jean. Pre-seduction, they are unabashedly flirtatious with each other. After, however, the awkwardness of the situation drives them to become cruel to each other, and they trade rapid-fire below-the-belt insults in between suggestive comments.
These moments of sharp emotional contrast explain the decision to bill the play as “psycho-sexual.” While the interplay of post-coital regret with lingering lust is certainly realistic, it’s very hard for the audience to endure the relationship drama without getting a headache.
Though character complexity is good, emotional schizophrenia simply causes confusion and annoyance. One minute, Jean is gushing to Julie about how he used to love her from a distance and spy on her under cover of foliage; the next, he’s tossing coins at her, thanking her for her services and sailing out of the room.
Jean’s bipolar attitudes about his station in life are another major point of the play. He believes himself to be better than his masters, yet realizes ultimately that perhaps he is not. Here, his arguments about the relationship between class and morality create a poignant moment in the play. The arguments ring true, and Macon’s delivery is spot-on.
Similarly, Woods excels in her acting post-seduction, as the cliched portrait of a weak woman — indecisive, ineffectual and dreadfully clingy. Perhaps because her character seems so realistic, Woods in turn seems so believable.
This helps make up for the unfortunate (and not at all compelling) incarnation of Julie that inhabits the stage in the first third of the play, who’s rubbing Jean like a lap-dancer one moment and shouting cold orders the next.
Marissa Copeland rounds out the cast as churchgoing, humble servant Christine, who mostly keeps to herself and readily turns a blind eye to the increasing coquetry between her mistress and Jean, her fiance. Copeland is convincing and her character admirably practical in a play filled that maintains a fever-pitch of excessiveness.
Sex sells, and the prevalence of sensuality in “Miss Julie” will guarantee that the play holds at least a modicum of interest for most people. The lusterless plot, however, and the infeasibility of the lovers’ wild (and wildly changing) emotions interferes with one’s enjoyment of the production.
“Miss Julie” is a good diversion, and it’s perfect for getting the blood racing on freezing “spring” days. Like the warmth of the theater, though, don’t expect the story to stay with you once you step outside and back into the cold.