A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Typical of the way this world drowned out individuality in the cacophony of industrialization, Treadwell omitted names other than generic tags. It's a male as well as machine dominated society and men and the machinery making the wheels of this world go round destroy the fragile anti-heroine. Her mother, being herself defeated by a lack of empowerment has become one of the forces that will lead to the inevitably tragic ending.
The real life inspiration for Treadwell's fictional counterpart was Ruth Snyder. Her sensational trial for killing her husband resulted in her being the first woman to be put to death in Sing Sing prison's electric chair since 1899.
Machinal's expressionistic style, made it seem like something of a sequel to Eugene O'Neil's The Hairy Ape (1922) and even more Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine (1925) and a fitting part of the expressionist wave enveloping European theater. Novels like Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt and Thedore Dreiser's American Tragedy (1925) were also seedbeds for the themes explored in Machinal.
It takes an especially astute production or an actor transcending the inherently dated themes, to give these plays exciting new lives. The Irish Rep's extraordinary revival of The Hairy Ape that honored the playwright's instructions for an expressionistic staging yet giving an impression of realism met this this challenge with striking ingenuity. A marriage of stark realism and abstract expressionism, topped by a slathering of social protest, beautifully reinvigorated Rice's The Adding Machine as a chamber musical.
And now, after an absence of more than 80 years, the Roundabout Theatre Company has brought Machinal back to Broadway, risking complaints that it's no longer relevant and too much of a downer. After all, the electric chair is as dated a piece of machinery as the manual typewriters and switchboards that dominate one of the nine episodes that propel this American tragedy to its almost too painful to watch finale; and women are as likely to be vice-presidents rather than marry them as the only means to a better life.
But with Rebecca Hall playing the doomed Young Woman, this remains a powerful psychological study of a woman too high-strung to deal with a harsh milieu. She fully inhabits this woman who's too naive and insecure to survive the life of an office drudge, to say no to a repellent marriage, or to overcome post-natal depression and its mistreatment by the male medical establishment. Hall gets deep inside this unhappy, unwise protagonist and she captures Treadwell's deadpan tone perfectly. The staccato rhythm of her hallucinatory monologue in the To Business episode comes off as a strange but potent poetry. When she finally falls in love, she predictably does so unwisely. The extremes to which her perennial inability to act with the assured reason of a mature adult is summed up in her explanation as to why she chose to murder rather than divorce her husband with "I couldn't hurt him like that."
In addition to Hall's heartbreaking performance, this Machinal is blessed with the always superb Michael Cumpsty as the husband. Cumpsty is tall and quite attractive so hardly the way too old and physically off-putting husband one would expect to see in this role. Yet, splendid actor that he is, Cumpsty manages to make us understand the Young Woman's revulsion at having to live with this platitude spouting Babbitt and being touched by him.
Except for the protagonist, the husband, the mother (Suzanne Bertish) and the lover (Morgan Spector, aptly dark and handsome like the unknown named Clark Gable originated the role), the rest of the able ensemble all take on several characters. In an exellent the off-Broadway revival I saw back in 2001 ( the review), the husband, in a clever bit of ironic double casting, also played the trial judge.
The double casting gives the Ensemble members plenty of opportunities to shine.Arnie Burton who is the defense lawyer in the trial scene, first appears as an older gay man picking up a young man in the same bar scene where Young Woman meets the Lover. The introduction of Burton's character proves that Treadwell deserves to be recognized not just as a distinctly original and gifted writer, but a playwright well ahead of her time.
Interestingly, as the play focuses on the downside of modern machinery's effect on a more slow-paced society, so the staging of this revival is a tribute to the continuing development and improvement of our technical expertise. When Treadwell wrote Machinal sound and lighting designers lacked the technological know-how to create the sophisticated and richly evocative locale shifts of the current production. Es Devlin's rotating set, is a star player in its own right, as are Jane Cox's lighting and Matt Tierney's sound design.
Ultimately, Hall's riveting performance and the stunning stagecraft, which applies to all the production elements, would not be possible if Sophie Treadwell hadn't given them an innovative script, bursting with genuine feelings. Since several of her other plays were also produced on Broadway, but without recognition or any sort of afterlife, one can't help hoping there's one among them with enough merit for a forgotten play treasure hunter like Jonathan Bank to resuscitate at his Mint Theater just a block north of the American Airline Theater.
In case you're wondering about the right pronunciation for the title, though originally often pronounced mock-en-aahl, the current production honors the playwright's choice of mash-i-naahl.
January 18, 2014 Postscript: Several readers e-mailed asking about other plays Lyndsey Turner has directed. Here's a link to our London critic's much praised production of Chimerica: Chimerica review. Incidentally, it too featured a revolving set.