Femme Very Fatale

Illustration by Josue EvillaPhoto: Joan Marcus

August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie is lauded as a great work, but I’m not so sure about that. It’s a terse, cold play that examines an archetypal hysterical female, locked into rigid ideas of sex and class, as if she were a bug under a jar. It is scarily persistent, though, and Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie is the rare reimagining of a classic play that may actually improve upon the original. This passionate reworking shifts the setting to a country estate outside London in 1945—when the differences between lower and upper classes were supposedly dissolving—and strives to understand Strindberg’s confused characters instead of just diagnosing them.

Miss Julie (Sienna Miller) is the privileged daughter of the manse, a haughty vixen clearly taken with John (Jonny Lee Miller), her father’s chauffeur. She strides into the kitchen oblivious to the fact that John and his maybe-fiancée, the solid and religious Christine (Marin Ireland), might be wanting some time alone. No: She demands that John must come outside and dance with Miss Julie; he must pour her a drink; he must, humbly and erotically, kiss her shoe. John, whose identity is shaped entirely by his job serving her family, at first resists, then succumbs to her manipulative seductions by confessing his lifelong love, and finally grows repulsed as their ill-matched plans for each other unfold. They humiliate and degrade one another, practically searing brands into each other’s skin.

In doing so, they (and Marber) stress one truth Strindberg didn’t: that the counterbalance of misogyny is male self-loathing. Jonny Lee Miller, as John, understands this: He’s tender as he recounts a memory of Miss Julie as an unattainable little girl in a white dress. But his reverie is the flip side of recrimination. He resents her, and it’s all her fault. The actor’s performance exposes a bitter, heartrending sneer contained within.

Sienna Miller’s Julie is also a broken soul, and the resulting shards are deadly sharp and dangerous, to herself more than to others. The performance begins as a stylized turn: She’s reminiscent of Bette Davis in the early moments of The Letter—all clipped consonants and imperious vowels. But her imperiousness is only the launching point. As Miller moves deeper into Marber’s reimagining, she’s more voracious, more predatory, more confused, and possibly even more unlikable than Strindberg’s original. Miller doesn’t peel back layers with actressy meticulousness; this is a performance scrubbed raw. When Miss Julie lunges at John with a savage, anguished cry—“There’s blood between us”—Miller’s voice perches at the exact midpoint between murder and despair. And suddenly, the durability of Strindberg’s play makes sense. As the actress plays this version of his troubled, treacherous creature, she’s one of a kind, a living rhetorical question. After Miss Julie, what else is there? –S.Z.

Remember “Walking in Memphis,” Marc Cohn’s catchy bit of Delta-tourism pop from the early nineties? Remember how you kinda dug it despite—or perhaps because of—its brochurelike approach to the cradle of American music? (Beale Street: Check! “Catfish on the table”: Check! Gospel choir: Check!) Well, Memphis is like that, too, only without any songs nearly as catchy. High-mindedly but softheadedly penned by librettist-lyricist Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) and composer David Bryan (Bon Jovi keyboardist and co-writer of the Toxic Avenger musical with DiPietro), Memphis may be the first musical about pop music to be based on other musicals about pop music, with strong whiffs of Bye Bye Birdie, Dreamgirls, and Hairspray.

Although Memphis is a mock-up of a phony, it does intend to convey a serious message: Rock and roll, it seems, was not invented by white people! Of course, this being Broadway, a white guy is still the star: Chad Kimball plays Huey Calhoun, a stand-in for real-life Memphis D.J. Dewey Phillips, the motor-mouthed firebrand who was among the first to play R&B “race records” for white audiences and famously gave Elvis his radio debut. Unlike Dewey, Huey doesn’t put Elvis on the air—indeed, he seems to exist in an Elvis-less Memphis, where white people sing and dance about only one subject: the inability of white people to sing and dance. It’s just as well: No ersatz Broadway Elvis would fit onstage with Kimball. With his 78 rpm delivery and quicksilver tenor, he’s a perfectly contoured stone skipped briskly across the show’s sluggish surface. He sells a passable eleven o’clock number, “Memphis Lives in Me,” as an aching, ringing heartland anthem.

Ultimately, neither Kimball, nor his brass-piped, Diana Ross–ish love interest Felicia (Montego Glover), nor the poppin’ ensemble can save Memphis from melodic poverty, Bono-grade race-bathos, and lyrics like “We gotta change our intolerant ways.” But they do give an empty K-tel collage of a show an honest soul. And, in Kimball, Memphis has given us a brand-new Broadway rock star. –S.B.

After Miss Julie
By Patrick Marber.
American Airlines Theatre.
Through December 6.

Memphis the Musical
By David Bryan and Joe Dipietro.
Shubert Theatre

Femme Very Fatale