Sleeping with the Help

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Miss Julie is always deliciously seductive.

I don't mean just the sex of it, which in the new adaptation by Neil LaBute at the Geffen Playhouse, is predictably, and appropriately, sexier than you remember it.

I mean the elegance and economy of the play, itself. Written in 1888 by August Strindberg, the play is the quintessential upstairs downstairs drama. Three characters on a single night from dusk 'till just after dawn. A footman, his fiancé the cook, and the mistress of the house, Miss Julie. There's a seduction that crosses class lines and moral taboos and then . . . consequences. Sure there's a little offstage action, if you'll pardon the pun, but really the whole world of the play is compressed into this servant's kitchen. There's a grace to Strindberg's set-up that lets him, almost effortlessly, reveal these character’s souls.

If you know Neil LaBute's writing, you can't help but be a little tantalized by his take on the play's sexual politics.

He's updated Miss Julie to what, in a nutshell, is Great Gatsby territory: Long Island, 1929 on the eve of the Great Depression. He recasts the trio as quickly recognizable stereotypes: the devout Irish cook, the vaguely Italian-accented John, and Miss Julie, herself, who could easily double for Fitzgerald's Daisy Buchanan. These are characters we recognize so we can focus on the wonderful power dynamics of Strindberg's plot.

The kitchen looks like a centerfold from a Restoration Hardware catalog: high white tiled arch above the sink and stove, glass front cabinets, a sturdy gray butcher block that serves as executioner's work table.

More than the elegance of the setting, what you'll come to appreciate is the logic of the space, really of the whole production. Designer Myung Hee Cho's set makes sense - not simply for the period but for the play. The play's plot depends, in part, on its architecture: a sleeping fiancé out of earshot, a chamber to consummate the act, an upstairs for this downstairs. Director Jo Bonney directs the space and symbols as deftly as she does the actors: the movement of two glasses, the slamming of a door speak as clearly as the text.

At the heart of any Miss Julie are the reversals: the acting. This cast doesn't disappoint. As wonderful as Logan Marshall-Green is as John, Lily Rabe steals and grounds the show as Julie. In the body of a lesser actor, Ms. Rabe's emotional gymnastics would seem histrionic. Somehow, she juxtaposes a sexual power with a vulnerable hopelessness in little more than a beat.

Perhaps it's the adaptation's success at making the drama so accessible that leaves the ending feeling so oddly inaccessible: maybe it's our jaded time, maybe the ending’s stuck in another time, or maybe it's me...but Ms. Rabe's Julie seems a little too vital to take her own life.

This is going to be a tough ticket to get in the Geffen's small space, so, like they say on TV, 'act now'.

Miss Julie plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through June 2.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 95 minutes without an intermission.

Banner image: Logan Marshall-Green and Lily Rabe in Miss Julie. Photo by Michael Lamont