The best idea director Anders Cato had for his production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie was to commission Craig Lucas to adapt the late-19th-century play the Swedish master called the first naturalistic tragedy. After all, in Lucas’s own plays—such as last year’s still reverberating Small Tragedy—characters are often caught up in domestic clashes far bigger than the battles they consciously wage. They act out of motivations that are multiple, contradictory, and impossible to fix, just as Strindberg insisted modern characters must, in his famous preface to Miss Julie. And like Strindberg, Lucas sets forth taut moral conundrums but leaves judgments, if they even can be made, to the audience. Though politically at odds in many respects, the two playwrights’ dramatic sensibilities make that Strindbergian impossibility: a good marriage.
Lucas also brings a sharp and halting lyricism to the text (based on Cato’s literal translation), rescuing a crude and beautiful brutality from decades of stilted English versions. In their post-coital power struggle, the servant Jean tells his boss’s daughter, Miss Julie, “I can’t pretend that . . . it isn’t, in some ways, fitting to see, to learn once and for all that the glittering gold is junk, nothing: powder over a scar. That the polished nails have filth underneath and the handkerchief has snot under all that perfume . . . ”
Of course the breaching of the social barrier between the two seducers is essential to Julie’s desperation after the deed—as well as to the attraction. At its core, Miss Julie shares the elemental plot of all those hunky-plumber porn movies: Taking an impulsive tumble with the sexy worker is hot precisely because it’s transgressive. But Julie’s suicidal anxiety is hard to make convincing in this day and age; and Jean’s dreams of working his way up and opening a hotel do not easily sound futile to an American audience, reared on promises of opportunity for all who apply themselves. American actors face a tough challenge in this play, as they have to embody the class war through which the old battle of the sexes is waged.
Good as they are in revealing moment-to-moment, shifting, and competing feelings, Marin Hinkle and Reg Rogers don’t generate a visceral sense of class difference. Hinkle indicates Julie’s aristocratic status with a wan haughtiness, capturing her death wish, but not her lustiness; Rogers subtly conveys Jean’s efforts to demonstrate refinement, but misses his unselfconscious machismo. They simply aren’t sexy together. (I can still feel the charge of Lena Olin and Peter Stormare seething at each other across the BAM stage in 1991 in Ingmar Bergman’s production.)
Cato hasn’t managed to make contemporary sense of Strindberg’s interlude in which Jean’s fellows, celebrating midsummer’s eve, trash the kitchen while he and Julie, hidden away in his bedroom, have a go at it. But by commissioning Lucas, he has brought us a fresh and thorny version of a dramatic masterpiece that continues to prick and disturb.