By: Sam Affoumado
Inspired by the Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray murder trial, Sophie Treadwell’s expressionistic play, Machinal, was first presented on Broadway in 1928, during an era of mechani
zation and male economic and social domination. The play was well received by critics but closed after only 91 performances. Over the last eight decades there have been relatively few revivals: one, directed by Gene Frankel, in the early sixties and another in the early nineties at the Public Theater as well as a revival at the Royal National Theatre in London. Now playing at the American Airlines Theater through March 2nd, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production of Machinal is a stunner.
Under the adept direction of Lyndsey Turner, this biting indictment of a world ruled by men is masterfully illuminated. Succinctly told, the story reveals the life of an ordinary young woman who can’t find peace in the urban industrial society of her day. Her entire life has been dictated to her and though she follows the rituals and expectations that society has placed upon her, she always feels out of sync and claustrophobically entrapped. She is an office stenographer who has been supporting her greedy mother and reluctantly marries her repulsive boss whose greatest ambition is to buy a Swiss watch… in Switzerland. He gloats after every business success and repeatedly tells her lewd stories to get her "in the mood." Subsequently, she gives birth to a baby girl but, to her dismay, motherhood offers her no true rewards or happiness. Bereft of love and not fitting in anywhere, the young woman meets a man in a speakeasy who impresses her with a tale of how he killed two bandits who held him captive in Mexico. Her illicit affair sparks a newly aroused lust for life and drives the young woman to murder her husband. She is found guilty of the crime and is executed in the electric chair.
The young woman protagonist referred to as Miss A. and later known as Helen Jones (Rebecca Hall), is initially revealed to us as a frail, willowy, persona frantically trying to escape from the shadowy, clutches of a moving subway car filled with jostling, gray, faceless men. Es Devlin’s extraordinary set is a spinning diorama of modern (1920s) urban life, moving us, menacingly, from one "episode" to the next. Jane Cox brilliantly lights the exquisite, ever-changing, set while the dispiriting atmosphere is further enhanced by the original music of Matthew Herbert and the riveting, cacophonous sound design by Matt Tierney.
Rebecca Hall commands our attention as she impressively conveys Helen’s anguish. You feel her humiliation, her anxiety, her panic; her shallow breaths become her trademark. Is she suffering from some unknown neuroses? Is there a medical reason for her depressive nature? Perhaps her unstable state of mind is due to the entrapment she feels, perpetrated by the throngs of men who have the power to determine her life. Mr. Jones (Michael Cumpsty) is one of those men. Though playing against type, Mr. Cumpsty’s performance as her smug, patronizing, husband is remarkably repugnant. Helen’s young lover (Morgan Spector) is a likeable free spirit and the scenes between them are presented naturalistically, offering the audience a break from the expressionistic-styled, staccato, dialogue heard throughout the rest of the play. Other notable performances from the large ensemble include (Suzanne Bertish) as Helen’s overbearing, self-serving mother, (Ashley Bell) as the amorous switchboard operator and (Arnie Burton) as the lascivious gay man in the speakeasy and later, as the earnest defense lawyer.
Machinal, with its grim view of male-dominated capitalism, forces us to closely examine the American moral landscape and we don’t always like what we see. The expressionistic style of short, rat-tat-tat, one-liners delivered by the ensemble peppered with longer soliloquies and rants delivered by the principal players, intensifies our theater-going experience while driving the message home.
Do not let the highly expressionistic style of Machinal dissuade you from seeing this thrilling production. Unfortunately, the bleak point of view of this theatrical octogenarian is still relevant today. See it before it closes.
Machinal – at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, NYC; roundabouttheatre.org. Through March 2. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes with no intermission.
With: Rebecca Hall (Young Woman), Suzanne Bertish (Mother), Morgan Spector (Lover), Michael Cumpsty (Husband), Damian Baldet (Husband in Tenement/Second Man/Bailiff/Barber), Ashley Bell (Telephone Girl/Young Girl in Tenement), Jeff Biehl (Doctor/Judge), Arnie Burton (Man in Bar/Defense Lawyer), Ryan Dinning (Filing Clerk/Boy in Bar/Second Reporter), Scott Drummond (First Reporter/Second Guard), Dion Graham (Man in Tenement/Man in Bar/First Guard), Edward James Hyland (Adding Clerk/Priest), Jason Loughlin (Bellboy/Barber), Maria-Christina Oliveras (Woman in Tenement/Woman in Bar/Nurse/Court Reporter), Daniel Pearce (Jailer), Henny Russell (Stenographer/Mother in Tenement/Matron), Karen Walsh (Wife in Tenement/Woman in Bar) and Michael Warner (Man in Bar/Prosecution Lawyer).