Like a watch, it’s not always obvious how people work. What goes on beneath the surface? What makes them tick? This goes double for people whose lives differ dramatically from our own. Why would a wealthy heiress, or an enterprising Uber driver, throw it all away? Queen of Basel, a contemporary drama having its world premiere at Studio Theatre, tries to lift the face and peer at our machinery, our cogs and screws.
Tension builds in the detail-rich kitchen of a Miami hotel, appropriately bedecked by scenic designer Debra Booth. As the rich and famous celebrate Art Basel offstage by doing whatever it is that rich and famous people do at the annual Miami-based art show, Julie (Christy Escobar), a wealthy heiress, implores cocktail waitress Christine (Dalia Davi) to help her. Julie, a recovering alcoholic, has been soaked in gin following a collision with the server. Soon Christine’s Uber-driving fiance, John (Andy Lucien), arrives, begging the gin-soaked Julie to let him drive her home. As Christine returns to her duties as a server, Julie and John spar in increasingly dramatic and flirtatious ways. By the end of the night, all three characters have done something they probably didn’t wake up planning to do.
Queen of Basel is based on August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie. Hilary Bettis, who penned Queen of Basel, writes in her author’s statement that “the trap, of course, is to view this play through the lens of the original Miss Julie.” It’s hard not to get caught.
Like a renovated house, Queen of Basel is noticeably different from its source material, but restricted by its architecture. Strindberg’s misogyny is gone and Bettis’ characters feel more real, but the timeline remains the same. The story plays out over a single evening, which means Queen of Basel tries to do a lot in a small amount of time. Ultimately, it’s not enough time to fully explore everything the play wants to get into—race, gender, class, power, and the multifarious experiences of Latinx people, to name a few.
The play is most successful when it takes things slow. Long periods of silence, sometimes with no one onstage, hit hardest, and Julie manically making her way across the set, chugging wine after years of sobriety, captivates. The actors establish the power dynamics Bettis wants to investigate and subvert with body language and mere glances.
At other times they lay out their biases, traumas, and motivations quickly, with on-the-nose declarations. The play builds nicely to the first dramatic reveal—why John is so intent to give Julie a ride home—but spins out of control from there. In the end, we understand why these characters did what they did, but we don’t feel it.
That isn’t to say that Queen of Basel isn’t enjoyable. The actors are strong and it’s a delight to see Booth’s hyper-organized set come apart and get covered in blood. The final scene is dramatic (and a clever subversion of Strindberg). The topics this play brings up will tickle your brain.
Of course, it’s also possible that the problem isn’t the play’s condensed timeline but rather the fact that it’s hard to empathize with a rich white person who acts cruelly, even if she has her reasons to do so. But I don’t think that’s it. Or at least, I don’t think that’s all of it. The ideas Queen of Basel explores are interesting and worthy of examination, it just needs a bit more time.
1501 14th St. NW. $20–$104. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.