By Toby Zinman
“Ripped from the headlines!” With this oldtime trumpeting of excitement to come, Machinal, returns to Broadway after eighty-six years. The play is based on a sensational 1926 murder case: a young woman discovers sex via a travelling salesman, murders her husband “to be free,” is brought to trial, found guilty and executed.
This is one of those plays you read—maybe—in graduate school and never think about again. Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Sophie Treadwell’s expressionist drama, is puzzling: you couldn’t ask for a more stylish production yet the play is so dated that you wonder why they bothered.
Treadwell was a crusading journalist and feminist, and Machinal gives us a look into the troubled mind of Young Woman. This generic naming is obviously meant to mean that all women were imprisoned by societal expectations (marry somebody, anybody, have children) and how those constraints, compounded here by a pitiless and impoverished mother, distorted their lives. The similarity to Susan Glaspell’s Trifles is obvious, where another crushed wife finally snaps and murders her husband, although Trifles is a far better and subtler play.
The difficulty with this antiquated sympathetic feminism, is that Young Woman (Rebecca Hall) is clearly not Everywoman but someone too frail and neurotic to deal with the world; our first glimpse of her is of her desperately rushing from a crowded subway car—a visually stunning scene-- making her late for work yet again.
Young Woman speaks her thoughts aloud through Treadwell’s experimental dialogue, and we see her panicked misery amid her mechanized, gossipy co-workers, with her boss (Michael Cumsty) who puts his “fat hands” on her and then marries her, and with her meanspirited Mother (Suzanne Bertish). We see her fall for sexy Lover (Morgan Spector). There are no surprises, no conflicts; the plot plays out just as anyone could have predicted.
The brilliant director, Lyndsey Turner, whose knockout of a show, Chimerica, was a hit in London earlier this season, creates a great look and a great rhythm for this Machinal, imitating the beat and the sounds of a huge societal machine that grinds up lives. The noirish dialogue is based on unrelenting repetitions and the didactic clichés of the era. The revolving set (Es Devlin) and moody lighting (Jane Cox) are the most exciting aspects of this short, stale play.
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., New York.