By: David Sheward
A crowded subway car is the striking opening image of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s searing revival of Sophie Treadwell’s relatively obscure 1928 drama Machinal. (This is its first Broadway production in over 80 years, but there have been notable Off-Broadway and London stagings in the 1990s.) As Matthew Herbert’s jarring original score and Matt Tierney’s harsh sound design fills the audience’s ears, the curtain rises on a dark stage, and we gradually make out a mass of bodies costumed by Michael Krass in shades of grey. Jane Cox’s poetic lighting picks out the face of Rebecca Hall as the Young Girl, horrified by the relentless pace of modern city life.
Suddenly she pushes her way out and Es Devlin’s box-like set revolves to an even more confining space-the stuffy office where the Young Girl works, filled with wage slaves who move and speak like automatons. This unforgettable beginning lasts only a few minutes, yet in Lyndsey Turner’s imaginative staging, it sets the tone for a frightening and riveting portrait of a woman trapped by social convention and economic necessity.
Inspired by the true story of Ruth Snyder, the first woman to be electrocuted for murder, Machinal follows the Young Woman, also identified as Helen Jones. Employed as a stenographer, she marries her dull boss because she has no other choices in the pre-feminist 1920s. Her husband, her doctor, even her own mother push her into a blank, meaningless existence, until she meets a virile drifter (played originally by Clark Gable in his Broadway debut) and they embark on a brief affair. After her lover lights out for Mexico, Helen can no longer stand her loveless marriage and murders her banal spouse by bashing him on the head while he sleeps.
Treadwell, a journalist as well as playwright, wrote the script in the sharp rat-a-tat staccato of tabloid news stories, including Helen’s stream-of-consciousness monologues. The bizarre style echoes the Expressionist style employed in Buchner’s Woyzeck, O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, and Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine. Turner creates the perfect staging for this nightmarish urban jungle with the large-for-Broadway cast playing the massive, faceless crowds crushing Helen. Even dancing couples and passers-by become menacing mobs as Devlin’s set revolves and Cox’s noirish lighting flashes by as if we were constantly looking in on that packed subway car of the first scene.z
The Young Woman is something of a cipher, like Mr. Zero of The Adding Machine, caught in the merciless machinery of a changing America. But Hall, in her Broadway debut, brings her to intense life. From the initial panic-stricken dash to her slow walk toward the electric chair, Hall charts Helen’s futile struggle to escape male domination with passion and pathos. Michael Cumpsty, cast as a boring clod as he was in Roundabout’s The Winslow Boy earlier this season, properly makes the Husband into a collection of corporate clichés. Morgan Spector makes a muscular irresistible lover. Turner brilliantly has him be the only character who steps outside of the confining box representing the dark, mechanical world the Young Woman cannot escape.
Jan. 16-March 2. Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission, $52-127. (212) 719-1300. www.roundabouttheatre.org
Photos: Joan Marcus