There is a haunting, rarely-produced, stylistic, Expressionist drama lighting up Broadway at the moment, but if you don’t act fast you are going to regret that it passed you by(“Machinal” ends its limited run at the American Airlines Theatre on March 2nd). Especially considering that the last time this show was on the Great White Way was 1928, starring Zita Johann(now best remembered for 1932’s “The Mummy with Boris Karloff)and a handsome, unknown actor making his Broadway debut—by the name of Clark Gable. Oh, there have been other revivals of this work(including renowned ones off-Broadway and in London), but this is the highest class treatment of Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal” that you are likely to see for quite a few seasons to come. It also features the Broadway debut of noted stage and film actress, Rebecca Hall(“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, “The Town”), who also happens to be the daughter of the lauded founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, theater director Sir Peter Hall. And the fetching Ms. Hall acquits herself quite well in this dour piece about a woman who is constantly trying to scratch herself to the surface, and ultimately makes a choice that finds her paying a horrible price. Ms. Hall is impressively teetering and suffocated throughout, a young woman struggling to find a foothold, and almost constantly out-of-sync. But it must be said that the true star of the play doesn’t have a single word of dialogue, and towers above every other performer.
Designer Es Devlin has created a masterful art-deco box of a set, that revolves for scene changes and sports openings for viewing off-center action, and slats for emitting macabre rays of light(lighting by Jane Cox). It’s incredible. An intricate wonder that seems like a nightmare out of the mind of lovers of the bizarre, like Guillermo del Toro or David Lynch. Indeed, many have found the contraption too oppressive and upstaging—although it certainly seems that the stifling aspect is the whole point. When the play opens “the box” is a crowded subway car, wherein we first meet our fragile Young Woman(Ms. Hall), as she’s groped and panicky in a subterranean world populated by men in fedoras and overcoats(Michael Crass did the costumes). “Machinal” is a period-piece of a time gone by, where males have almost complete domination of society, and impressionable female stenographers who live with their mothers can be coerced into marrying employers who they secretly loathe. The set continues to turn for nine different chapters in this roughly 90-minute work(with no intermission), and its labyrinthine windows and doors reveal silent background tableaux, while the main players emote in the forefront. It’s an effect that is more enriching than distracting in my eyes, a play enhanced by always having something obliquely “going on”.
Without question, the most beautiful and heart-tugging “chapter” of the work displays the Young Woman breaking away from her oppressive, much older spouse(a solid Michael Cumpsty speaking in a studied, deliberate cadence)and into the arms of a rough-hewn young man who becomes her Lover(an excellent Morgan Spector). Much of the cast embodies multiple roles, including my family’s friend, Edward James Hyland, whose dialogue scenes open the play(as one of Young Woman’s co-workers, an Adding Clerk), and close it(as the bible-reciting Priest). Mr. Hyland is also utilized as a subway rider and a wedding guest for different chapters, sporting costume changes that might mask his identity to all but those who know him personally. An accomplished character actor on stage, television and in film, Mr. Hyland isn’t likely to be mentioned prominently in the majority of “Machinal” reviews, but he’s getting solid attention in mine, because I’ve been proud to be of the acquaintance of this man for a number of years. Plus, he was gracious enough to invite me backstage after the curtain call to get a hands-on and closeup look at the wonder of a set, as well as explain in-depth its various functions and malfunctions(the revolving box infamously broke down, on opening night of all times, and after a long delay, the show was restarted—whereupon a number of volunteers pushed the computer-driven behemoth by hand). Thank you, Ed! It was illuminating, educational and a downright thrill.
“Machinal” has been dexterously directed by Lyndsey Turner for this Roundabout Theatre Company production, and the staging of the play is bold and sharply timed. The final scene in particular has been executed with razor precision to include a walk around the floors and through the portals of the elaborate set while the geometrical platform moves in the opposite direction of the sauntering actors. In fact, the staging of this is so calculated, that the simple adjustment of a shoe was factored in, to assure that the performers and their altar arrive in unison. Inside information, folks—when Ms. Hall seemingly spontaneously reaches down to secure her footwear, it’s all been planned. So, what appears to be a throwaway moment, is a necessity that ends up carrying an emotional weight by chance and design. Also, the aforementioned subway car opening veils the proceedings with a tragic foreshadowing. Forget that legendary falling chandelier, “Machinal’s” railway car is a mesmerizing and unforgettable “prop”.
This play was inspired by the real-life case of 1920’s murderess, Ruth Snyder. And as we watch the “machines” of that roaring decade chew up “Machinal’s” fragile flower, the claustrophobic grip of that era is made present—if never quite contemporary. That’s not a criticism, except to say that “Machinal” is quite obviously an older, and somewhat dated, offering. Plus, the creepy, rat-a-tat monologues spewed out by Ms. Hall don’t always work, as much as employ a necessity of a glimpse of the Young Woman’s crumbling mental state. Kudos must be given however, to a Broadway production that provides such a stark and searing finale in an age of Times Square tourist domination. “Machinal” had to be given a limited run to ensure becoming a hot ticket…this isn’t something you’ll be bringing Aunt Gertrude to while she’s visiting from out-of-town. But real theatre lovers should get thee to 42nd Sreet and witness this one-of-a-kind wonder while it’s still a possibility. It’s captivating. This show rates an 8