An awkwardly insecure girl from the tenements of New York is forced, by societal conditions and a lack of viable options, into marriage to her boss; motherhood; and such continued repression that she finally takes matters into her own hands--mighty pretty hands, all the men tell her--and brutally murders her husband. This is the unlikely trajectory of Sophie Treadwell's Machinal, the newest Roundabout offering at the American Airlines Theatre.
This first Broadway revival of the nearly-forgotten, eighty-five-year old play stuns us on several counts. The original lasted a mere eleven weeks when it was produced at the Plymouth in 1928. It has only been intermittently seen in the interim, most notably in a 1990 production at Joe Papp's Public Theater and Stephen Daldry's 1993 Olivier-winning production at the National. Machinal is a fascinating jackhammer of a play, written in expressionistic style. It is swift, vibrant, and crushingly good. It is also arguably the most striking offering Roundabout has given us since the fabled Natasha Richardson/Liam Neeson Anna Christie back in 1993. Make no mistake, this is a riveting production of a monumental if seriously overlooked play.
One tends, in such cases, to heap praise on the director and designers. Lyndsey Turner is unknown on local stages, although her recent production of Lucy Kirkwood's Chimerica at the Almeida in London received extravagant praise. Her work here is magical. Collaborating with Brit designer Es Devlin (who also did Chimerica as well as Julie Taymor's recent Midsummer Night's Dream in Brooklyn), she has placed the action within a square turntable of what looks like corrugated steel. The set lumbers, purposely, from scene to scene; Turner adds what appear to be "side scenes" on the narrow ends of the cube, as we move from one of the play's nine parts to the next. These wordless interludes--in a crowded subway car, at a streetside newstand, at what they used to call a thé dansant--are not included in the script, but each and every one magnifies the power of the play. And the leading character's lack of power.
Young Woman--as the heroine is called--is stuck. As played by Rebecca Hall in a smashingly forceful Broadway debut, she is like a fly trapped between a window and a window-screen; she flails, she stammers (much of the dialogue is written in repetitive fashion) and she figuratively dies over and over again. Ms. Treadwell's aim is perfectly clear; we experience her torture so completely that we don't wonder when she finally kills hubby in cold blood. (Treadwell, a newspaper reporter, patterned the story after the convicted murderess Ruth Snyder, whose 1927 trial and subsequent death in the electric chair shocked the nation.)
Hall, who comes off as tall, awkward and plain, earns our full sympathy; the honeymoon scene, with her ham-handed husband (Michael Cumpsty) trying to charm his "little girlie," will likely set you cringing. So will the tortuous kitchen-table discussion with her mother (Suzanne Bertish). Cumpsty gives a notable performance--he could make a person's flesh crawl, here--as does Morgan Spector as a man passing through town who introduces our heroine to something better while providing the modus operandi for the murder. For those who care about such things, this role was created back in 1928 by an unknown actor named Clark Gable.
Ms. Devlin's set is matched by Jane Cox's lighting and Michael Krass's purposely dull costumes. The entire physical production serves to put Young Woman into a cage, then a jail cell, and finally a boxed-in electric chair. Director Turner also provides a stunning and startling soundscape, designed by Matt Tierney. The heroine cannot escape from it, no matter where she is; she is assaulted even in the maternity hospital. The audience itself is similarly assaulted by city noise, which makes the production all the more effective.
Machinal--approximate pronunciation is a Frenchified "MASH-een-all," per the folks at Roundabout--was not without antecedents. Treadwell seems clearly influenced by Elmer Rice's 1923 Adding Machine along with strands of Eugene O'Neill's 1920 Emperor Jones and Maurine Dallas Watkin's 1926 Chicago. Machinal was Treadwell's only successful play--out of about forty--which suggests that a great deal of the credit might be due to visionary producer/director Arthur Hopkins, who was previously responsible for the original Anna Christie, What Price Glory?, and the acclaimed Barrymore productions of Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard III.
But what matters is the work on stage. Machinal--in Turner's production led by Ms. Hall, at the Roundabout--is startling, electrifying, and sizzlingly good.