Dark and unrelentingly wrenching, this production emphasizes style over substance.
By Joel Benjamin
Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 Machinal at the American Airlines Theatre is dark and dreary. The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production exaggerates this darkness and dreariness with a purposely monochromatic production designed by Es Devlin (scenery), Michael Krass (costumes) and Jane Cox (lighting). A large grey, cube-like structure fills the stage and is rotated constantly to reveal different locations which vary from a subway car to an office to several apartments full of people wearing black, grey and white costumes (with the exception, for some strange reason, of a switchboard operator whose red hair and colorful dresses stand out).
Inspired by the story of Ruth Snyder who was executed for her part in the plot to murder her husband, Machinal’s author twists the facts into a pre-feminist yarn about a woman’s lack of choices in the close-minded society of 1920s America. The main character, here called Young Woman (Rebecca Hall), is pressured by her mother and, according to Ms. Treadwell, by a hard-hearted social order into a loveless but financially comfortable marriage with her boss, called Husband (Michael Cumptsy) who bosses and controls her unrelentingly. She finds comfort and excitement in the arms of a Lover (Morgan Spector). Caught between sensual satisfaction and material security, she takes what she feels is the only way out, killing her husband by bashing his head in. The problem is that the story, as spun by Treadwell, doesn’t lay out a strong enough argument for the Young Woman to kill her mate. Despite the fact that her husband is a control freak bastard, killing him comes across as overkill. It is difficult to empathize with a person who murders because she is sexually frustrated. Perhaps this play’s message doesn’t have the power it once had.
As directed by Lyndsey Turner, all the inner turmoil of the Young Woman, is muted by the peculiarly anti-drama decision to have the actors spout their lines mechanically. The usually vivid Rebecca Hall comes across as a hollow-eyed depressive, even while enjoying the attentions of the hunky Morgan Spector. Michael Cumptsy finds every possible positive emotion he can in his part and makes it clear that he is just as much a victim of his time when husbands were the bosses and breadwinners. Suzanne Bertish also conjures up some warmth as the Mother despite the fact that the role is written as a harridan. As the, literally, colorful Telephone Girl, Ashley Bell adds some lightness to the proceedings while Arnie Burton makes the Defense Lawyer as appealing as he can under the circumstances.
Last revived in 1990 at the Public Theatre in a much more colorful and nuanced production, Machinal may have become little more than a museum piece, one that needs a more energetic and original approach than this over-stylized interpretation.
*Photos: Joan Marcus
Machinal (through March 2, 2014)
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St., between 7th & 8th Aves.
New York, NY
Tickets: 212-719-1300 or www.RoundaboutTheatre.org
Running time: 1 hr. 40 minutes, no intermission