Wednesday, September 2, 2015

NY Review: MACHINAL

By Toby Zinman

NY Review: MACHINAL

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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.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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