When you walk into the Drilling Company, a small theater on the Upper West Side, the woman who plays the title role in Miss Julie, Louise Seyffert, shuffles out of her dressing room to check your reservation. The lobby, marked by a wheezing heater, has a few chairs, a couple of cans of coke, a bottle of wine, and a suggested donation box. There is no staff—only the three actors in the play. This is actually appropriate, as August Strindberg stresses in his introduction that “first and foremost, a small stage and a small auditorium” should house Miss Julie, a one-act that avoids an intermission in order to retain verisimilitude.
The play concerns the daughter of a wealthy count who, on a midsummer night, decides to slum it by dancing with the servants—but when she flirts too much with the manservant Jean (Bart Vanlaere), she finds herself “playing with fire” (a favorite phrase of Strindberg’s). Jean seduces her despite his engagement to the simple, religious cook Kristin (Ailsa Courtney), and Julie is left broken by the end of the play.
Strindberg announced that Miss Julie would be “a milestone in history,” and by all accounts it is responsible for a major shift in theatrical conventions. Still, what was once a scandalous, challenging work has been surpassed by its successors, leaving it about as hollow as its protagonist. The author makes no effort to hide his contempt for Julie, writing that she is a “half-woman,” a “man-hater” with a “weak and degenerate brain.” Without a trace of irony, he supposes that perhaps menstruation is responsible for her hysteria. His misogyny was, of course, notorious, but unlike others of his time, it is also a major detriment to his art. Often billed as a battle of the sexes, Miss Julie plays more like a treatise on the inferiority of women. The setting and, to a certain degree, the plot are lifted from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, another play about sex and class, but Shakespeare’s work ultimately proves funnier, richer, and, yes, even darker.
The cast of this production tries hard to make it work, and even though they are perfectly acceptable actors, nothing quite fits. Julie is meant to be twenty-five, while Ms. Seyffert must be at least in her ‘forties, and Mr. Vanlaere, sporting a combover, is difficult to believe as the cunning and manipulative Jean. Ultimately, any attempt to defibrillate this corpse of a play fails in the face of its immaturity and emotional shallowness.