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A CurtainUp Review

Love! What does that mean? Will it clothe you?. . .feed you?. . .pay the bills?
-- Mother, when Helen, is hesitant about marrying her middle-aged boss

Jessica Clarke, Richard Kohn
Jessica Clarke, Richard Kohn
(Photo: Dixie Sheridan)
Synapse productions couldn't have chosen a better play to fit its mission of presenting groundbreaking work than Sophie Treadwell's neglected 1928 play Machinal (pronounced "mock-en ahl"). The tragedy in nine scenes was the outgrowth of journalist-playwright Treadwell's assignment as a reporter at the sensational 1927 trial of a stenographer named Ruth Snyder for the murder of her husband. Treadwell used Snyder as a springboard for a plot which she described as "the story of a woman. . .an ordinary young woman, any woman." Helen, her emotionally fragile fictionalized version of Snyder is indeed an ordinary woman, but Machinal remains an extraordinarily powerful and richly theatrical play.

The woman who inspired Treadwell to create a fictional counterpart had the dubious distinction of being the first of her sex to be put to death in Sing Sing prison's electric chair since 1899. However, the play about her was hardly the first to take a hard-edged look at individuality drowned by the cacophony of a harsh world. By the time Machinal opened on Broadway, Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, had already dramatized the regimentation of middle class life in an industrialized and money-oriented society, also in an expressionistic style. Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy were also about ordinary women who became the pivotal figures of modern American versions of Greek tragedies. Treadwell was, however, the first woman to write such a tragedy. Her perspective from deep inside the feminine psyche and her striking style gave Machinal its groundbreaking originality and emotional resonance when it premiered on Broadway.

Happily, under Ginevra Bull's direction and with an unknown actress, Jessica Claire, portraying Helen, the current revival is not just a fascinating theatrical artifact pulled out of the cobwebby attic of neglected plays. It remains a gripping experience that evokes strong feelings even in our vastly changed society. Claire, her hair tightly coiled into a bun, as all of her is a tightly wound bundle of nerves, captures the essence of a girl who epitomizes a frightened bird whose wings are clipped by one societal machine after another: the dehumanized work place. . . the home bereft of love and understanding. . . the marriage that isolates and repels. . .the birth that leads to post-partum depression unheeded by the medical establishment. . .and, after, one brief episode of joy, a hellish final encounter with the law and the ultimate machine of destruction, the electric chair.

As Ms. Claire evokes a full range of emotions in her journey from one hell on earth after another, so Ms. Bull, without the bells and whistles or name actors available to a larger company, has managed to create every aspect of Helen's urban nightmare with the help of just a few all-purpose set pieces by Adrian Jones. The tension is immediately established. And it builds steadily from the first overlapping scene showing Helen having an anxiety attack on her way to the office with its dissonant din of adding machines, ringing telephones, workers whose sotto voiced interchanges sound like so many more machines. Each of the eight subsequent episodes meld into each other with stunning theatricality. They are full of arresting images, including another overlapping scene in the bar where Helen's meeting of the young man is one of three separate table scenarios.

Of the nine actors who play Helen's co-workers, her mother, husband and lover, Alice Cimmet, stands out as the telephone girl. If the others don't always distinguish themselves individually, all do outstanding double duty as the ensemble of nameless members of the society who systematically speed Helen to her desperate descent into the abyss. The honeymoon sequence in which the distraught bride cringes from her new husband George (Richard Kohn) is chilling even though Kohn falls short of being the smarmy Babbit who falls in love with her delicate hands, but whose own fat hands repulse her. He ironically metamorphoses from the kindly but blood-curdlingly dense George into the judge presiding over Helen's trial for George's murder. If Jack O'Neill as the young man with whom Helen has an affair lacks the irresistible charisma of a Clark Gable (the king of Hollywood did in fact play the young man in 1928), it does not diminish the one happy picture of Helen's life -- nor from its obvious transience as implied by his telling her that to him every woman he beds is an "angel."

Seeing this play is akin to watching one of Fernand Leger's industrial paintings animated with movement and sound. But while the Leger paintings are permanently available to viewers at the Museum of Modern art, Machinal is only rarely available for viewing. I've long regretted having missed the only New York revival at the Public Theater in 1990 (directed by same Michael Greif who is currently helming a new play, Dogeaters). Happily, the Synapse production has enough strengths to put my regrets to rest. Readers inclined to procrastinate should be aware that, unlike those always accessible Leger paintings, the curtain is scheduled to ring down on March 25th.

Consumer note: Considering that there's much to think about and discuss, you may want to buy your ticket for one of the four performances listed below which will be followed by a post-show discussion. And if you think the theater has priced itself out of your reach, note the audience friendly prices, including the pay-what-you-wish, night below.

by Sophie Treadwell
Directed by Ginevra Bull
Cast: Jessica Claire as Helen Jones, Richard Kohn as George Jones; also Alison Cimmet,Dina Comolli, Jerry Della SalIa, Michael Doyle, David Lapkin, David B. Martin, Jack O'Neill and Jacqueline Sydney
Set and Lighting Design: Adrian Jones
Costume Design: Miguel Angel Huidor
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes without intermission
Synapse Productions, Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster St (Spring/Broome Streets in SoHo) 212-358-5182 web site
3/04/01-3/25/01 opening 3/07/01
Performances: Monday and Wednesday-Saturday evenings at 8PM, and Sundays at 3PM. $19 -- students and seniors: $12 --Wednesday night performances are pay-as-you-wish.
Post-show discussions: March 11, 12, 18 & 19 .

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
The Broadway Theatre Archive

©Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer,
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