The Setting of the Times Prompts Murder; The Setting for the Play Prompts Applause By Lauren Yarger
Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal is another that begs the question "why this one?" in the midst of so many other great plays out there just waiting for a production, but Designer Es Devlin’s awesome sets prove reason enough to see this dark piece.
The action starts with the sounds of a subway car, the riders of which amazingly appear. Trapped among them, a Young Woman (Rebecca Hall) searches for escape on her way to her job as a stenographer at the George H. Jones Company. Her feelings of being trapped without hope escape intensify as she contemplates marriage to her uber-boring boss (Michael Cumpsty) whose "fat hands" repulse her.
But it’s 1922 in New York City. What other options are available to a woman? Her mother (Susanne Bertish) offers an example of a woman who still yearns for a man who wasn’t exactly a prize and who left his family years ago. It’s all about marriage.
The Young Woman (whose name we eventually discover is Helen) goes through with the wedding, but hates the marriage and the subsequent motherhood it brings.
"Somebody!" she wails from within the deepest yearning of her soul.
Looking for escape, Helen joins a good-time-loving friend (an entertaining Ashley Bell) for drinks at a bar (the terrific set revolves to become the various places in Helen’s story) and meets a Lover (Morgan Spector). The relationship, though offering a glimpse into what happiness might look like, is not sustainable and fuels her desire to be free of her obnoxious husband.
I will spare you more plot details except to say that the story is loosely inspired by the real life murder trial and execution of Ruth Snyder and it’s a bummer. Hall, who is known for her work on the London stage and films like "Iron Man 3," is making her Broadway debut. While she gives a solid performance and amazes with the memorization skills needed to utter long monologues of broken thoughts and single words that mean so much more, the character isn’t likable and director Lyndsey Turner doesn’t try to make her sympathetic.
Crumpsty’s portrayal of the officious husband whose major goal in life is to buy a Swiss watch in Switzerland and who, at 10:46 pm, refuses to let his wife go to bed because it is not bedtime (exactly 11) is skilled and gives us some understanding of why an ordinary woman might be compelled to kill him in violent fashion, however. (That non-sentence dialogue as well as a title that has most people googling it to find out the definition is don’t make the play likable either).
The ensemble includes Damian Baldet, Jeff Biehl, Arnie Burton, Ryan Dinning, Scott Drummond, Dion Graham, Edward James Hyland, Jason Loughlin, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Daniel Pearce, Henny Russell, Karen Walsh and Michael Warner.
Well worth the trip just for those amazing sets, though. They sort of become a character in themselves and we find ourselves waiting for the next change just to see what brilliance came to Devlin’s mind next.
Machinal plays at American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd St., NYC through March2 http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/.