Machinal: Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Rebecca Hall and Morgan Spector in "Machinal"
A stark opera that's inseparably of its time and yet quite trenchant in its observation of a woman's isolation.

Rebecca Hall stars in this bristling revival of Sophie Treadwell's 1928 expressionist drama, pulled from headlines covering the conviction for murder and execution of Ruth Snyder.

NEW YORK – You’ve got to give Rebecca Hall credit for not choosing a flattering, easily digestible star vehicle to make her arresting Broadway debut. Instead she opts for challenging material that could not be more diametrically opposed to the entertainment ethos of, say, Iron Man 3, to name one of the actor’s recent screen jobs. Inspired by the infamous New York murder trial and execution of Ruth Snyder early that year, Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 expressionist psychodrama, Machinal, is an airless examination of a desperate woman’s convulsive reaction against the confinement of marriage and motherhood in a society shaped by men and money.

A difficult play to warm to that’s nonetheless an intriguing theatrical curio, Machinal also represents an audacious choice for Roundabout Theatre Company, a leading nonprofit that has come under occasional criticism for making safe, subscriber-friendly choices. That certainly can’t be said for this sustained anxiety attack, which offers a bleak view of life as a series of deadening submissions, punctuated – if you’re lucky – by moments of peace or freedom that even then can be followed by betrayal. It’s appropriate that the play’s final words are “Lord have mercy.”

But while Machinal might have the matinee crowd squirming in their seats, it’s hard to imagine a more focused production of this rarely seen work, which is best known to contemporary audiences for Stephen Daldry’s 1993 revival at London’s National Theatre, starring Fiona Shaw. Staged this time by British director Lyndsey Turner with uncompromising rigor, the play’s nine “episodes” unfold in a revolving rectangular box created by design magician Es Devlin. This functions like a gallery of grim dioramas, shifting instantaneously among locations as varied as a subway car, an office, a tenement kitchen, a honeymoon suite, a speakeasy, a well-upholstered living room, a hospital, a courtroom and a prison cell.

The striking visuals of Devlin’s sets are deepened by Jane Cox’s shadowy, cinematic lighting effects, by the subdued color palette of Michael Krass’ costumes, and by a murky soundscape designed by Matt Tierney that incorporates composer Matthew Herbert’s unsettling score. The combined effect is dour but often darkly beautiful.

Initially referred to as Miss A. and only later identified as Helen, Hall’s character is first glimpsed in a stunning wordless vignette where she gasps for air and bolts from a crowded subway. We later learn that this is a habitual occurrence, making her late for work most days. A willowy beanpole rendered even lankier in her dropped-waist period dresses and cloche hats, Hall uses her height and handsomeness not to give the character elegance or authority but to mark her as an unassimilated species in an alienating industrial world.

That suffocating opening segues to an equally distancing introduction to Helen’s office life as a stenographer. The staccato dialogue of her colleagues is underscored by the rhythmic clatter of typewriter keys, an adding machine and a telephone switchboard, with Turner conducting this syncopated cacophony like an avant-garde symphony. When her boss, Mr. J. (Michael Cumpsty), proposes, Helen swallows her physical revulsion for the smug blowhard, prodded partly by the joyless harridan of a mother (Suzanne Bertish) she supports, who scoffs at the notion of love as a requirement of marriage.

Responding to her wedding-night nerves, Mr. J. declares, “I’m your husband, you know,” assuming that such a statement alone clarifies their mutual positions and her required role. But neither married life nor becoming a mother does anything to ease Helen’s agitation. As she sits up in bed like a zombie in the maternity ward, unable to hold or feed her child, Hall powerfully conveys the woman’s anguish. Spewing out a torrent of words like Lucky in Waiting for Godot, she unleashes the role’s manic stream-of-consciousness rants with grave conviction. Treadwell’s stylized use of language almost makes her a precursor to David Mamet.

In the play’s pithy compression of time, the constriction of Helen’s world grips like a stranglehold. But reprieve comes when she accompanies the office telephonist (Ashley Bell) to that floozy’s bar hangout. Helen makes the acquaintance of a brawny hunk (Morgan Spector), just back from bumping off banditos and running for his life in Mexico, his preferred habitat.

In the initial tryst that starts their love affair, Turner has her actors momentarily soften the non-naturalistic performance style to convey Helen’s dream of escape. She describes herself after their first union as feeling “purified.” But while fictionalizing the details, the playwright sticks close to her tabloid inspiration in the crushing return to reality that follows, making it no surprise when things don’t go the way Helen had hoped.

Even at 95 minutes, the play becomes somewhat punishing, though the staging of Helen’s “dead woman walking” procession through the various chambers and corridors of Devlin’s spinning set is transfixing in its funereal horror. The production’s attention to movement throughout is fascinating, finding physical menace in dancing couples or busy hospital workers or jostling subway passengers, their faces masked by newspapers.

This is a tough play with an intensity that doesn’t let up, and the actors all respond to it with full-force commitment. Cumpsty shows his range by going directly from Roundabout’s The Winslow Boy revival, in which he played a selfless doormat, to make the Husband a figure of cold phallocentric entitlement. Bertish expertly balances manipulative self-pity with severity and a final hint of maternal pain. Spector imbues the Lover (a role originated by a pre-movie stardom Clark Gable) with the requisite free spirit and self-possessed masculinity. Arnie Burton also does incisive work, both as a predatory gay man reeling in a young conquest in a bar, and later as the defense attorney.

But it’s Hall who rivets attention, holding nothing back in her tortured portrayal of this everywoman’s dehumanizing downward spiral as she’s failed by her own survival skills and by everyone around her.

The brilliant 2008 musical adaptation of Elmer Rice’s 1923 The Adding Machine , which this play in many ways recalls, showed that stony expressionist drama could still wield a tremendous visceral impact. Machinal remains perhaps too defined by theatrical artifice and pre-feminist theory to be as shattering as the events it depicts, but it merits attention as a bold excursion beyond standard Broadway fare.

Venue: American Airlines Theatre, New York (runs through March 2)
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Suzanne Bertish, Morgan Spector, Michael Cumpsty, Damian Baldet, Ashley Bell, Jeff Biehl, Arnie Burton, Ryan Dinning, Scott Drummond, Dion Graham, Edward James Hyland, Jason Loughlin, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Daniel Pearce, Henny Russell, Karen Walsh, Michael Warner
Director: Lyndsey Turner
Playwright: Sophie Treadwell
Set designer: Es Devlin
Costume designer: Michael Krass
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Music: Matthew Herbert
Sound designer: Matt Tierney
Choreographer: Sam Pinkleton
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company