The kitchen supply room of the swanky hotel in “Queen of Basel” is stocked with just about everything — not the least of all, melodrama. Poured into an Oscar de la Renta gown, statuesque Julie (Christy Escobar), the bratty alcoholic daughter of Miami’s condo king, takes pleasure in taunting John (Andy Lucien), the beefy Uber driver who has come to pick her up at the urging of his big-hearted girlfriend, Christine (Dalia Davi), a Venezuelan refugee working as one of the hotel’s skimpily clad cocktail waitresses.
It’s a formula for a certain, tried-and-true type of sexual psychodrama — the plot, in fact, is lifted intentionally from “Miss Julie,” August Strindberg’s 1888 tale of Swedish class-conscious power games. And though the situation offers opportunities for some delectably histrionic pyrotechnics, director José Zayas’s Studio Theatre production never fully ignites. The real cooking seems to be reserved for the appliances in an adjacent room.
Playwright Hilary Bettis has in mind here a portrait of the ravages of privilege. Julie is in possession of a Harvard MBA and dreams of creating an NGO to serve the poor. But substance abuse has turned her paranoid and toxic, and she’s not above treating the help like dirt — even help she’s attracted to. Alas, the heat that needs to be generated between her and the man she seeks to dominate, and be dominated by, never rises above lukewarm.
What we’re left to parse, then, is a morality tale, presided over most sympathetically by Davi’s Christine, who is apportioned a play-ending monologue detailing the story of her struggle to escape Venezuela’s totalitarian Maduro regime. As a result, “Queen of Basel” packs a topical, if not a satisfyingly emotional, wallop.
The backdrop for “Queen of Basel” is a party celebrating Art Basel, an annual art fair in Miami. Art is a launchpad on a more tragic platform in another current offering, Signature Theatre’s mounting of Heather McDonald’s cautionary play, a windy work with the wordy title “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”
In the shattered remains of an art museum in an unnamed city enduring the 100th year of war, an art restorer played by Holly Twyford is the bloodied prisoner of the cruel Mitra (Felicia Curry), a revolutionary who chains her to the wall and administers various kinds of physical punishment. With the help of Nadia (Yesenia Iglesias), the tables will inevitably and predictably turn, as the women struggle over the authorities’ wishes that a Rembrandt damaged in the fighting be repaired.
“Masterpieces,” under Nadia Tass’s direction, employs three excellent actresses in service of a protracted sermon about the preservation of art and the survival of the soul. There’s a well-choreographed fight scene, but otherwise, the play is a bout with torpor.
Queen of Basel, by Hilary Bettis. Directed by José Zayas. Set, Debra Booth; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Andrew Cissna; sound, ML Dogg. About 90 minutes. $20-$55. Through April 28 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. studiotheatre.org.
Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, by Heather McDonald. Directed by Nadia Tass. Set, James Kronzer; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Sherrice Mojgani; sound and original music, James Bigbee Garver. About 95 minutes. $40. Through April 7 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771. sigtheatre.org.