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Posted: Thu Jan 16 2014
Machinal.American Airlines Theatre (see Broadway). By Sophie Treadwell. Directed by Lyndsey Turner. With Rebecca Hall, Suzanne Bertish, Michael Cumpsty, Morgan Spector. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.
Machinal: In brief
Stage and screen star Rebecca Hall stars in journalist-playwright Sophie Treadwell's 1928 classic about a woman whose attempts to escape society's gears result in madness and homicide. The revival of this rarely seen modern classic is staged by acclaimed British director Lyndsey Turner.
Machinal: Theater review by David Cote
Crotchety longtime subscribers to our leading nonprofits are fed up. They’re sick of those quirky, language-bending young dramatists, the aesthetic progeny of Paula Vogel and Mac Wellman. I’m talking about writers such as Jenny Schwartz (Somewhere Fun), Annie Baker (The Flick) and Anne Washburn (Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play). These scribes (women, so many of them!) gravitate toward stylized dialogue and surreal (or hyperreal) dramaturgy. Their plays are weird, full of tactical repetition, awkwardness, even ugliness. Last year, I playfully but earnestly dubbed this school the Theater of the Meta-Diorama. Patrons grow irritated or confused; artistic directors issue apologetic e-mails. So fair warning to ticket holders at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre: There’s a new Meta-Dioramatist on the block named Sophie Treadwell, and she wants to rub your nose in the mechanistic grimness of modern life.
Oh, hang on a minute. I just checked my notes, and apparently Treadwell’s Machinal debuted in 1928, and the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival is its first Broadway outing since then. (In all truthfulness, I’ve seen it in college and Off-Off Broadway.) And yet this sensually shocking and impeccably acted production—a high point in my years attending the Roundabout—feels stingingly fresh and provocative. Yes, the milieu is pure Jazz Age, but the intelligence and ferocity of Treadwell’s bleak vision comes through sans dust, rust or one iota of nostalgia. The groundbreaking journalist-playwright is part of a theatrical continuum stretching back to Büchner’s Woyzeck and forward to Young Jean Lee. And this sensational mounting proves it beyond a doubt.
Inspired by a true-crime story about Ruth Snyder, a woman who got the electric chair for murdering her husband, Machinal is the story of a high-strung Young Woman (Hall), victim of oppressive social structures and her own fraying nerves. She marries her boorish, older boss (Cumpsty), shudders disgustedly into bed with him, bears him a girl and descends into marital misery—briefly relieved by an affair with a handsome Lover (Spector). Treadwell scripts her nine scenes with outrageous expressionistic flair: the staccato rhythms of switchboard, typewriter and adding machine mirror the rapid-fire patter of office workers; voices in adjacent apartments float in and out as if on the radio dial; stomach-turning construction noises blend with the arrogant blather of a doctor. The language of Machinal is clipped and barbed; it drains your blood to replace it with engine oil. The Young Woman spews stream-of-consciousness inner monologue like a flapper Winnie, decades before Samuel Beckett created his nattering wraiths in Happy Days and Not I.
We reviewers, scribbling under deadline and a tight word count, often neglect design, as if we’re reviewing radio drama. But English director Lyndsey Turner has assembled an amazing team. So if you’ll permit me, let me praise the scenic/sonic elements before I get to the wonderful ensemble. First, Es Devlin’s set is a neutral-colored revolving cube whose chambers transform into an office, a speakeasy, a hotel room and death row, among other locations. The Young Woman is a soft, fleshy innocent caught in the gears of a brutal society, and this implacable stage machinery captures a sense of homogeneity yet modularity. Jane Cox’s eerie lights traverse and define the set with surgical precision, heightening the sense of exposure, like bands of lights scanning invisible bar codes. Matt Tierney’s sounds burrow under your skin; photographers’ flashbulbs crack like jaw-shattering punches; music insinuates itself through windows like honeyed lies. This is one of the best-looking and -sounding shows you may see all year.
But the stage effects wouldn’t count for much if the cast were unsure or all on different pages. And here Turner has also done outstanding work. Rebecca Hall’s neurotic, trapped Everywoman is neither passive victim of society nor romantic sociopath; we can ascribe her fate to pre-Zoloft, prefeminist limited options, but Treadwell is too probing—and unsentimental—to stay on the soapbox. Everyone in this world is a cog, some are just more aware of it. Treadwell’s characters are not meant to be well-rounded or psychologically shaded; they are social types in a dark allegory. And the actors, under Turner’s pitch-perfect guidance, rise to the challenge of playing sharp-etched grotesques. Cumpsty’s odious and smug husband would drive any wife to a lover, and yet there’s a kind of boyish innocence in his idiocy. Spector is a heartless monster too, but a sexy and graceful one; in his scenes with Hall, the play softens slightly, its proto-Brechtian rigor relaxes. In a single scene, Suzanne Bertish incarnates a guilt-giving nag of a mother. And the rest of the ensemble is studded with bright, eye-catching turns by many of the New York stage's finest: Dion Graham, urging his lover to get an abortion; Jeff Biehl’s fatuous doctor, bullying nurse and patient; Arnie Burton, enjoying the limelight as a flashy lawyer. Hall may be the star of the show—and in her trembling, panicked intensity she is fantastic—but all the gears are turning.
The Roundabout has been on a good streak, with daring and punchy revivals of Picnic, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Big Knife, Man and Boy and Look Back in Anger (not to mention several good new plays). Machinal takes the biggest risks, and has the greatest payoff. If you care about American theater—particularly its experimental heritage—go now. I seriously hope that the Roundabout’s audiences are thrilled by what they see. But if Todd Haimes gets complaints from people who were rattled or disturbed, that only means the machine is working smoothly.—Theater review by David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote
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