Eighty-six years is a long time between Broadway revivals, especially since they seem to be coming faster than they used to.
So “Machinal,” which first appeared on Broadway in 1928, opened Thursday with more than a few in the audience wondering if a play last seen here during the Calvin Coolidge administration was scrap metal or salvageable.
The answer: The Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production has kept the quirky engine but surrounded it with a good-looking chassis and new lighting and audio systems. It’s even put in the driving seat the enormously appealing Rebecca Hall under the artful, creative direction of Lyndsey Turner.
The result at the American Airlines Theatre is a quirky, sometimes melodramatic and expressionist scream from the past that somehow still can move you.
Written by journalist Sophie Treadwell, “Machinal” was inspired by the true story of Ruth Snyder, a New York woman who died in the electric chair in 1928, convicted of killing her husband following an affair.
The title comes from the French “mechanical” or “automatic,” and Treadwell uses staccato telegraphese, recurring and irritating rhythms and cliche-ridden repetition — the sounds of the nerve-racking city.
Her story is about a delicate dreamy woman named Helen Jones, who finds modern life unbearable — business, marriage and motherhood. Even commuting on a subway jammed up against an endless line of bodies is nauseating, as the terrific first scene shows.
“I’m all tight inside,” she tells her mother. “I can’t go on much longer like this.”
She marries her boss (a bombastic and perfectly off-putting Michael Cumpsty), starts an affair with a stud muffin (tough guy Morgan Spector, doing a little Brando), goes on trial when her husband ends up dead and ends up in the electric chair, as much a victim as a perpetrator. Murder may not be forgivable a solution, but it is somewhat more understandable.
Hall, known for her film work in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Iron Man 3,” uses her wide, soulful eyes to terrific effect, telegraphing her inexorable 95-minute march to ultimate tragedy. A tall, long-limbed beauty, Hall projects a coltish unease and otherworldliness in the role, a woman ultimately in the wrong place and time.
Set designer Es Devlin has created a massive revolving, wood-paneled box that reveals more-than-possible adaptations over nine scenes, including the march to the death house in which it spins as fast as the actors march.
The effect is marvelous, especially when wed with lighting designer Jane Cox’s unsettling brightness and shadows as well as harsh bands of light, and Matt Tierney’s soundscape that includes mechanical thumps and engine noises.
“Machinal” is by no means perfect or smooth. There’s a court scene that seems a jarring change from the mood of the rest, and it’s peopled by flat characters spouting gibberish. Not for everyone, it’s a moody, jarring meditation on the modern world that’s a critique of capitalism, mechanization and male-dominated power. For 86, it looks pretty, weirdly good.
Back on Broadway for the first time since 1928, “Machinal” draws loose inspiration from real-life husband-killer Ruth Snyder to tell a story of a desperate young woman who resorts to homicide to escape the misery of a suffocating, dronelike life.
The dehumanization depicted in the drama includes marriage and motherhood — typically the stuff of dreams, not nightmares — so journalist-turned-playwright Sophie Treadwell’s seldom-seen “masterpiece” (at least in the words of the Playbill) offers the potential for a gutsy and subversive take on life.
Cheers to the Roundabout for choosing this atypical and rather risky show — an Expressionist play with emblematic characters and spare, staccato dialogue. But kudos don’t equal success.
Treadwell’s play is stylish but slight. It does, however, provide compelling evidence for the gifts of British director Lyndsey Turner, whose New York debut demands you sit bolt upright and take notice.
To create the mood of a woman trapped, Turner and her ace design team place her inside a rotating box that morphs with each scene. Purring with sleekly elegant beauty, the physical staging is the star here.
That much is clear from the wordless opening, which shows Helen (Rebecca Hall) getting groped in a sardine-can subway car on her way to her soul-stifling stenographer job. Once there, her workplace is jammed with robotic colleagues — little respite from the small apartment she shares with an oppressive mother (Suzanne Bertish).
Helen’s marriage to her jabbering boss (Michael Cumpsty) is just as choking. She recoils from his touch. She doesn’t want her baby daughter.
What follows is illogical plotting. Somehow, for example, the dead-eyed, plodding Helen ends up in a bar and meets a young man (Morgan Spector), who opens her up like the flowered dress she wears. Why is Helen even there? Where does that 180-degree turn come from? It’s all completely unclear.
Hall, known for films like “The Town” and “Iron Man 3,” hides her beauty and plummy English accent as Helen. She’s sturdy at some times, singsong in others. Hall’s stature and height allow her to strike a physical presence, but when it comes to Helen’s freeform monologues, she’s emotionally empty.
“Machinal” doesn’t elicit strong reaction — but it’s well served by the world and well-oiled machine created by Turner.
One of the most thrilling shows on Broadway is about a woman who kills her husband in cold blood. That would pack in the tourists . . . if we were talking about “Chicago.”
Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal” isn’t a sexy musical but an obscure drama — one that hadn’t been revived on Broadway since its 1928 premiere. It’s written in a modernist prose style, which is quite abstract, at times even experimental.
All told, it’s a tough sell, but director Lyndsey Turner and her star, Rebecca Hall — Scarlett Johansson’s reasonable friend in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” — have made it a must-see.
It starts off brilliantly, with the tall, young Helen (Hall) trapped in a mass of straphangers on a packed subway car, which is rendered in all its claustrophobic horror.
The stage rotates — Es Devlin’s set makes fantastic use of a large turntable — and we’re now in a busy New York office, where Helen’s a secretary.
Jane Cox’s expressionistic lighting and Matt Tierney’s inventive sound design help create a suffocating atmosphere. You can see the skittish Helen being driven nuts by the subway crowds, the clickety-clack of typewriters and her colleagues’ incessant chatter.
“It’s like I’m all tight inside,” she tells her needy, nagging mother (Suzanne Bertish). “Sometimes I feel like I’m stifling!”
Desperate to escape, Helen marries her domineering boss (Michael Cumpsty, looking like a baddie from a ’30s noir flick). But she flinches at his touch — she hates his “fat hands” — and breaks down on her wedding night. She soon gives birth to a child she doesn’t want, and later has an affair with a man (the strapping Morgan Spector) she meets in a speakeasy.
Things don’t end well for anybody: The play is based on the real case of Ruth Snyder, who killed her husband in 1927 and was the first woman to die in the electric chair.
“Machinal” is a vivid, bracing portrait of a woman pushed to the edge, but it doesn’t involve any weepy psychologizing. The dialogue is highly stylized and the sophisticated-looking production follows suit, a shocker coming from the usually conservative Roundabout.
What makes the show so fascinating is the contrast between its cerebral approach and Hall’s compassionate performance. In her Broadway debut, the English actress effortlessly navigates stream-of-consciousness monologues while helping us relate to this opaque character.
Helen may feel like a cog in a machine, but Hall makes her all too human.
A desperate life blazes amid devouring shadows in the Roundabout Theater Company’s intensely stylish revival of “Machinal,” Sophie Treadwell’s fascinating play from 1928 about one woman’s captivity in a hell called New York City. That life is embodied by the charismatic British stage and film star Rebecca Hall, in her Broadway debut, so you can bet that it’s going to burn bright.
I’ll admit I was dubious when I learned Ms. Hall was playing the tragically crushable Young Woman in “Machinal,” which has been staged by another powerhouse Briton new to Broadway, Lyndsey Turner. In take-charge parts like Vivie in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” (her London debut) and Rosalind in “As You Like It,” Ms. Hall had such a vibrantly blooming stage presence that the idea of her as a passive natural-born victim sounded absurd.
Yet in “Machinal,” which opened on Thursday night at the American Airlines Theater in its first Broadway revival, Ms. Hall must struggle to hold her own against an overbearing co-star. That would be Es Devlin’s revolving, scene-stealing set, which portrays a juggernaut of doom — i.e., modern urban existence — that flattens all in its path.
You might say such a battle, pitting a lone specimen of humanity against a marvel of technology and artifice, only underscores the haunting determinism of “Machinal,” and I wouldn’t argue. And even if the Young Woman is clearly headed for extinction from the first scene, Ms. Hall’s emotionally transparent performance is never overwhelmed by what surrounds it.
So the contest between star and scenery ends in a draw. It’s most of the supporting cast who are the casualties here, in ways that I think dilute the hypnotic cadences and potential impact of Treadwell’s drama.
Treadwell (1885-1970) was a prolific and successful playwright and journalist. But “Machinal” is the one work for which she’s known today, and it’s a rare and disturbing beauty. (I was introduced to it by a revelatory 1990 production at the Public Theater, directed by a young Michael Greif.) Its plot was inspired by the story of Ruth Snyder, a Long Island housewife who murdered her husband and died in the electric chair at Sing Sing. Yet there’s nothing tabloid about the play’s style.
On the contrary, “Machinal” is a jagged symphony of voices, in which speech itself sounds as if it had come off a mass-production assembly line, spoken by people disconnected from their own words. As a portrait of a misfit protagonist in a regimented universe, “Machinal” echoes Expressionist works like Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” (1922) and Elmer Rice’s “The Adding Machine” (1923).
What sets Treadwell’s play apart is the gender of its central character, who is conceived with the kind of tender, probing empathy you associate with the interiority of modernist fiction. (For the record, Ms. Hall hasn’t found an entirely persuasive delivery for the play’s stream-of-consciousness monologues.) The Young Woman, whose appropriately generic name is Helen Jones, faces an even greater tyranny of rules and limitations than O’Neill’s and Rice’s hapless men.
Living in the city with her harridan of a mother (Suzanne Bertish), and working as an untalented stenographer, she marries her small-minded, smothering boss (a miscast Michael Cumpsty). After all, what are her choices? All the while she longs for an abstract and impossible freedom. When she falls into bed with a romantically rough-hewed man (a fine Morgan Spector, in a part originated by Clark Gable), she believes that liberty awaits her, if she can only unshackle herself.
The sense of the Young Woman’s imprisonment, which begins long before her arrest in her husband’s murder, is given harrowing and exquisite life by Ms. Devlin and a design team that also includes Jane Cox (lighting), Michael Krass (costumes) and Matt Tierney (sound). The first scene is a stunner.
It portrays a moving subway car, eerily transected by bars of light and crammed with interchangeable bodies in shades of gray. In their midst, Ms. Hall’s wan but luminous face registers like an out-of-season crocus in an ash heap. Her wide-open features signal pain and panic, which will prove to be her habitual expression. There is no chance this exotic, bruisable flower will endure.
That first vision establishes the counterpoint that runs throughout all that follows. Ms. Devlin’s revolving set (she used the same idea for Ms. Turner’s hit production of Lucy Kirkwood’s “Chimerica” in London) turns as inexorably as the earth to reveal our heroine amid a series of inhospitable vistas, from the office to the bedroom. Every design detail — like the immense, sickly colored curtains that cover windows — seems to confirm and mock her feelings of confinement.
The same forbidding quality should also be evident in how the other characters talk and move, and it’s here that this “Machinal” falls short. Treadwell wrote dialogue in which clichés hammer, relentlessly and insensibly, at her heroine. Of the large cast, only the estimable Mr. Cumpsty appears to grasp fully this concept, with harshly rhythmic line readings that match the production’s mechanistic look.
Try as he might to conceal it, though, Mr. Cumpsty is a fit and attractive man, while his character (whose “fat hands” are mentioned in disgust) is meant to be so repulsive that the heroine’s “skin curls” at his very touch. Allowing for the age difference, he’s not all that different from the handsome soldier of fortune with whom the Young Woman falls in love.
Mr. Spector is just right in the scenes he shares with Ms. Hall, and his low-key spontaneity makes sense. In his arms, life for her briefly seems real instead of a nightmare. But for these enchanted glimpses to exert their full force, we need more rigorously stylized and synchronized performances elsewhere. The ensemble acting is so diffuse and varied that scenes that should be achingly suspenseful, like the climactic trial, often sag.
That slackness has the unfortunate side effect of making Ms. Hall’s character seem less a sensitive victim of a brute society than of her own mental illness. As a consequence, “Machinal” feels more like a diary of a mad housewife (or even Roman Polanski’s creepy film classic “Repulsion”) than is entirely suitable. Still, it’s a thrill to have as illuminating a guide as Ms. Hall to take us through the twisting corridors of derangement.
Describing "Machinal" as ahead of its time is just the tip of the revelations in Sophie Treadwell's 1928 expressionist stunner. This little-known adventure in psychological, sociological and stylistic boundary-pushing -- not on Broadway in 86 years -- has been given a dazzling, daring revival that feels especially startling in the doggedly conventional environs of the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre.
The lavish yet beautifully stark production reintroduces Treadwell, the pioneering American journalist and criminally forgotten author of more than 40 plays, and introduces to Broadway the provocative British director Lyndsey Turner and gifted, courageous actress Rebecca Hall.
In just 95 minutes, Treadwell takes us into the dehumanizing world of the machine age and into the desperately limited life of a sensitive, ordinary woman. She is called, simply, Young Woman, but her journey -- from secretary to the wife of her overbearing boss and to her execution for his murder -- is anything but generic.
It cannot be easy to play a character so tightly trapped behind society's facade. But Hall -- with a beanpole body like an exclamation point and a face of a thousand worried looks -- brings us deep inside the long, virtuosic bursts of halting half-sentences and tangled mazes of internal monologues.
We first meet her squashed and panicked in a crowded subway car, one of several wordless new scenes that Turner adds as strikingly visual connective tissue between what Treadwell calls her nine tight, far-reaching "episodes." Eighteen first-rate actors, many playing multiple characters, talk in punchy, staccato fragments with a rat-a-tat satirical flair that could have been written by David Mamet.
Although the woman's life is stunting and stifling, Treadwell opens it up so we can eavesdrop on surrounding conversations. At a table in a speak-easy, an older man tries to talk a younger man into coming home with him. At another table, a man talks a woman into having an abortion because "It don't amount to nuttin'."
Michael Cumpsty has an almost touching lack of self-awareness as Husband, whose unbearable bromides contrast violently with the passion of Young Woman's Lover (the charismatic Morgan Spector), a drifter with the freedom she can never have.
All this happens on Es Devlin's extraordinary set -- a rectangle of corrugated, prison-brown rooms on a turntable. Costumes, by Michael Krass, capture the dark, pulpy allure of the era. The lights, by Jane Cox, are almost a separate character, moving shafts that seem to have escaped from the bottom of the window shade that, remarkably, keeps Treadwell's doomed Everywoman from unattainable freedom.
When we first spot the central character in Sophie Treadwell's 1928 play Machinal in its current Roundabout Theatre Company revival (**½ out of four stars), she is darting frantically through a packed subway car. The "Young Woman," as she is identified in the text, has an unusually strong aversion to being trapped — and not just in physically close spaces.
The woman, whose name is eventually revealed to be Helen, works as a stenographer and lives with her mom, "Mother," introduced in an early scene as an irrational shrew. Before long, Helen has married her wealthy boss, one Mr. Jones ("Husband"), and given birth to his daughter, but is more miserable than ever.
Only after she meets a sexy guy in a speakeasy does Helen's outlook brighten. She begins an extramarital affair, and then decides, probably for the first time in her life, to do something really unconventional. And since Machinal was inspired by the true story of Ruth Snyder — a New York City housewife convicted of murdering her husband and executed in the electric chair in 1928 -- it isn't pretty.
Treadwell, an intrepid journalist as well as a playwright, attended (but didn't officially cover) hearings of Snyder's trial. But as the character titles suggest, Machinal is an expressionist drama in which Helen emerges more as a symbol than a human being. The play's bleak portrait of an unstable woman who feels stifled by her limited options — a feeling reinforced by the relentless, hypnotic hammering of Treadwell's dialogue — was clearly daring in its time.
Yet this stark new staging, which opened Thursday at the American Airlines Theatre, forces us — and its cast, rigorously directed by Lyndsey Turner — to confront Machinal's own limitations. From the opening subway segment (Turner's addition) on, we get a keen sense of how Helen, played by Rebecca Hall in her Broadway debut, feels smothered by everything and everyone around her. The actors playing her colleagues shout their repetitive lines; Helen's mother, brought to brief but blazing life by the superb Suzanne Bertish, is a constant source of agitation.
Life with Husband — a caricature of a condescending (and harrowingly dull) patriarch, gamely played by the always-excellent Michael Cumpsty — is no picnic either.
But it must be said that Hall's Helen is as frustrating as any of them. An accomplished stage actress with acclaimed British productions of Shakespeare and Shaw under her belt, the leading lady seems stumped by her character's exaggerated inability to articulate her unhappiness beyond vague yearnings for freedom.
Speaking robotically and sustaining an air of barely repressed hysteria, Hall grapples with her stream-of-consciousness monologues. One begins with "Let me alone," touches on Saint Peter and the Virgin Mary and concludes with "I'll not submit."
By the time Machinal runs its course, theatergoers may feel as if they're the ones who have been beaten into submission, by an anti-heroine who inspires dark fascination but little empathy.
Enthralled as we are to our digital gadgetry, you’d think we’d identify with the heroine of “Machinal,” Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 Expressionistic melodrama (inspired by the infamous Ruth Snyder case) about a woman driven to murder trying to escape her fate in a mechanized society. Helmer Lyndsey Turner’s stunning production creates an appropriately bleak environment for this dark drama, and Rebecca Hall (a member of British theatrical royalty better known for her movie work) makes a compelling case for this fragile creature. But it’s tough to empathize with someone who lacks a backbone and hasn’t a brain in her head.
Under Turner’s masterful staging, the opening scenes provide a bone-chilling perspective on the life of the unnamed Young Woman played with emotional delicacy by Hall. Working within the Expressionist theatrical style popular in Europe in Treadwell’s day, the director and her crack design team conjure up nightmarish images of a modern world as it’s experienced by a neurasthenic woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Headed for work on a New York subway train in 1922, the Woman cringes from the stiflingly close body contact with the strangers who press in all around her. In Jane Cox’s painterly lighting design, Hall’s pale face peers out in stark contrast with her fellow travelers, expressionless automatons identically dressed (according to the austere design of Michael Krass) in muddy colors and silently moving in robotic lockstep.
That unnerving image is replaced by another disturbing tableau when Es Devlin’s hugely impressive revolving set takes a dramatic turn and abruptly deposits the Woman in her office.
Matthew Herbert’s sober original music and Matt Tierney’s oppressive sound design dominate the storytelling here, assaulting the Woman’s ears with a maddening cacophony of clattering typewriters, jangling telephones and slamming file drawers. The anonymous staff in this unnamed business (played by first-rate ensemble members who do double and triple duty as the story develops) are dressed in the same drab tones as those silent robots in the subway, but here they have found their voices.
The Young Woman doesn’t find her own voice until the set takes another ominous turn and returns her to the tenement apartment she shares with her Mother, a nagging shrew in Suzanne Bertish’s pitiless portrayal. But when she struggles to articulate her discontentment with life and her yearning for love — the only moment in this severely stylized play when she seems remotely human — the old woman calls her “crazy.”
Which is why the next turn of that revolving set finds the Woman married to a Husband she loathes, in Michael Cumpsty’s perfect portrayal, the very model of the rich, powerful, self-satisfied male animal much admired in that era. That blinding naiveté also explains why another set revolve finds the Woman in bed with a good-looking Lover (the likable Morgan Spector) whose gentle lovemaking she confuses with true love.
But it isn’t until the final scenes of the play, when the Woman is convicted of homicide and solemnly escorted to the electric chair for killing her husband, that the playwright (or, more accurately, the director) succeeds in conveying the horror of her situation. For unlike Mr. Zero in Elmer Rice’s “The Adding Machin” or the little tramp in Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” this affectless Woman is too passive and dull-witted to become the Everywoman victim of the first industrial age of automation.
But since we’re currently living through the second industrial age of automation, there’s still time for other playwrights to come up with more authentic victims.