Be warned. The Roundabout Theatre Company has mounted such an effective production of Sophie Treadwell’s expressionistic drama Machinal (originally a Broadway entry in the 1928-29 season) that it may leave you limp and disoriented when you hit the street after seeing it.
When first done in the twenties, it had excellent press for the most part, but managed to eke out only 91 performances, even though its star Zita Johann had rave reviews, and it was produced and directed by one of the most respected names of his time, Arthur Hopkins. And it featured a young Clark Gable who was even then spotted for his appeal and for his potential as an actor. It’s not surprising that the public stayed away in droves, because Ms. Treadwell, a prominent journalist and playwright, chose to spin the story of real life murderess Ruth Snyder into a play using expressionistic dialog and scenery that injects its gruesome tale with added fuel and pumps it up into a bizarre and nightmarish evening of a dozen scenes employing a truckload of characters. With the exception of the 4 central roles, all the others are split among a company of 14 actors.
In this Roundabout production, Rebecca Hall is cast as what Ms. Treadwell calls “Young Woman”. Other characters remain nameless as well. Many are addressed merely as “Mr. A” or “Mr. A. J.”. It’s all impersonal, no one relates to anyone, each character is isolated, stuck in his or her small world. The Young Woman goes to work each day in a packed subway (vividly designed and staged), spends long hours doing mind-numbing clerical work in a large firm in which drones plug away at tasks which bring no reward to anything except the “bottom line”. When work is over, it’s back on the subway to return to a cramped apartment shared with her dominating mother who never misses an opportunity to criticize, to maneuver, to control.
To escape her life, she marries her boss, whom she does not love. She finds temporary relief from her stifling marriage with a young man (the role Clark Gable originated) who ultimately abandons her. We follow this young woman through this 100 minute play which builds to the point where she has a breakdown, as would any machine being driven as she is. The result is disastrous, as it would have to be in these circumstances. She commits a capital crime; arrest follows, a trial, conviction, execution, all of it is up there for us to savor slowly, steadily until we totally understand and empathize with this young woman, our pitiful protagonist.
Rebecca Hall’s work as the Young Woman is remarkable. She is the talented daughter of director Peter Hall, and she is making her Broadway debut after an estimable career on the London stage. She manages to be appealing and attractive, even plaintive at times, as she descends into the hell of her particular world. Michael Cumpsty as her husband and Morgan Spector as her lover handle the style of the play with ease, and are both effective. Among the ensemble players, all of whom are splendid, Arnie Burton and Ashley Bell are vivid and precise as a defense lawyer and a switchboard operator, and more. Suzanne Bertish as Mother is the kind of monster who helps psychiatrists earn their keep. But all in this large company are of a piece, and they contribute, singly and collectively. It’s a stunning production.
The play could have been written as an out and out melodrama, in the mold of Desperate Hours or Angel Street (Gaslight). Treadwell’s language, and the sound and scenic effects chosen by director Lyndsey Turner and designers Es Devlin (sets), Michael Krass (costumes) and Jane Cox (lighting), only heighten the irritating and abrasive punishment inflicted on us who must listen to and watch it all. I often complain about the unnecessary havoc caused by overly eager sound designers, who live by the theory that louder is better, but this time Matt Tierney’s ear blasting transitional music and sound effects between scenes is correctly abrasive, almost maddening. I found it fascinating but my warning comes to you because the overall concept is smack dab in your face, and you will find yourself flinching, squirming and thinking about whom you might wish to kill before it’s through.
I complicate Todd Haimes and his staff at Roundabout for forgetting our comfort factor and for spicing up this season’s offerings with one of the modern theatre’s most effective theatrical versions of the grotesque work of the expressionist painters. Think Edvard Grieg’s “The Scream” before you see the play, and you’ll have a good idea of what you’re about to experience. You’ll be disturbed, but it may make you more fully appreciate the life with which you’ve been gifted.
The Roundabout Theatre Company production of Machinal is onstage until March 2, 2014 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY, 10036. Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
Richard Seff is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.