August Strindberg's "Miss Julie" is a hard play to love, and the physically imaginative but dramatically chilly adaption at the New York City Center doesn't make it any more captivating.
The Russian-language production (with English supertitles), one of the features of this year's Lincoln Center Festival, begins as though it were a weekday afternoon show on Public Television.
In a shiny, stainless-steel kitchen, a cook (Julia Peresild) is preparing a meal. With an overhead camera providing a close-up, she chops the head off a dressed chicken and puts the torso in a pot of bubbling oil. If you can see this as an example of Social Darwinism — the stronger human surviving and the weaker fowl becoming dead meat – it's a foretaste of the deadly man-versus-woman struggle to come.
When he wrote the play in 1888, Strindberg was involved in the naturalism movement in literature, championed in France by Emile Zola and, later, in this country, by Theodore Dreiser. The idea was to examine life scientifically, with individuals, shaped by heredity and their situations in life, as organisms fighting for dominance.
In this "Miss Julie," produced by Moscow's Theatre of Nations, the story's been reset from Sweden to modern-day Russia. It's New Year's Eve at a country estate, and Miss Julie (Chulpan Khamatova), daughter of the business tycoon owner, is scandalously partying with the servants. Drunk, she descends into the kitchen to lure Jean (Evgeny Mironov), her father's chauffeur, into coming upstairs to sing karaoke with her.
He feels deeply uncomfortable because of their different social stations, and initially refuses. Making him more uncomfortable, the cook, Christine, who's also there, is his fiancée.
With an aggressive flirtiness, Julie finally succeeds in getting Jean – who has worshipped her from afar since they were children – to accompany her.
The rest of the evening is mostly a turning of the tables – the stage literally turns – as Jean becomes the seducer and, after they have sex, the master, with Julie a conquered woman, begging him to tell her what to do (hence the play's reputation as misogynistic). Despite hyper-heated action, it's all only intermittently compelling.
Khamatova's stylized performance doesn't allow us at times to see Julie in human terms. When we first meet her, she's giggly and childish. From that, she rapidly declines into deep neuroticism and mental imbalance.
There are some touching moments, but her relationship with Jean becomes less a matter of clashing wills and needs than an extended S&M session.
Jean's Mironov is more consistently flesh-and-blood, a man made of sturdier stuff than Julie who discovers his inner dominator, in a portrayal that's good but not especially distinctive.
The German director, Thomas Ostermeier, underlines the visual aspects of the messy struggle.
After a dialogue-free interlude in which the party revelers descend into the kitchen and trash the place, Julie and Jean, covered with blood and orange juice, wrestle, trip and flop onto the debris-covered floor. He drags her around, at one point stuffing her into a box, and at another into the refrigerator.
And then there's the time Jean stabs to death Julie's cute little dog, played by a real cute little dog. That, at least, takes place (make-believe, of course) out of our view, although we do hear it.