We should all be thankful for a company like the Roundabout Theatre Company for reviving the grand old plays from the first half of the 20th Century where a cast of twenty characters and a dozen set changes were routinely produced. If you were to propose a new play today that contained the casting and physical requirements of Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal from 1928, you would be flatly turned down. Any advice given to contemporary playwrights is to not exceed five characters and one set, or a unit set. However, Roundabout is willing to mount a revival of an old well known title and give us all a chance to go back in time and see what the Broadway theatre was like once upon a time. The results can be either wonderful or sometimes completely dull, leaving us to wonder what in the world the public and critics of 1928 thought was so great about something like Machinal. Unfortunately, this new production of Treadwell’s greatest success and most admired work is dull as dishwater.
This play is a favorite of mine, having performed in a college production some twenty years ago and I have seen other productions along the way, so I come to this as a fan with high expectations for a rare Broadway revival by a company that usually knows how to do these old plays, but has been very much disappointed. Yes this play is of the Expressionist mode of stylized dialogue that seems cold, direct and mechanical upon a first pass, but it contains a wealth of possibilities for interpretation that can bring out the humor, heart and despair that can emotionally connect us to the plight of the heroine, Helen (Rebecca Hall). This production does nothing except to suggest claustrophobia at every turn. To be fair, claustrophobia is a theme of the play, but it is not the only significant element to be depicted.
The story is culled from the headlines of the day about a woman who goes to the chair for the murder of her husband. Treadwell gives us a series of episodes, showing us a trail that leads to Helen’s tragic end. There is the feeling that her ending is inevitable from the beginning and so a foreboding hangs over Helen throughout the story. Helen’s incapability of dealing with the grind of big city life, a reoccurring theme in the theatre of the 1920s, is her downfall. The other characters seem to operate systematically as part of the machine of the city, but Helen is a kink in the works. Her inability to deal with her environment leads her to one misstep after another.
The cast of stalwart stage actors should be one hundred percent better than they are. Rebecca Hall is too angst-ridden too much of the time. She gives her few monologues of splintered images like the staccato of a typewriter, rather than finding a way through the ideas that illuminate her character’s mind-set. There could have been a far greater sense of joy when she finally finds love that would have made us all the more sympathetic when she faces her day in court for killing the husband that repulses her.
The husband is played blandly and distantly by Michael Cumpsty, a fine and celebrated actor who has not found his way into this play. He manages to win a few chuckles, but it is Treadwell’s script working well, more than any line reading. Hall’s repulsion of the husband is positioned as something we must except because she says so, not for any reason we actually see. For all her talk of hating his “fat hands” that paw her, we never see him get near her.
Doing better is Morgan Spector as the “Lover.” He is a handsome, strapping romantic leading man with a blue collar masculinity and it is easy to see why Helen would fall for him. Their bedroom scene together when their affair takes off is the best of the play, but it isn’t enough to forgive the blandness of the rest of the production. Also perking things up is Suzanne Bertish as Helen’s mother, though she is in a different play altogether––perhaps Clifford Odet’s Awake and Sing. Still, I enjoyed her scene more than anything else in the production.
Basically, director Lyndsey Turner has turned in an unexciting and drab production, styled to be mechanical at the cost of dynamics and what could be a vibrant theatrical experience. Turner also adds choreographed extensions of the scenes as filler to cover transitions. These transitions are necessary to give Hall a chance to change costumes and get into place for the next scene, but unfortunately what is depicted is not purposeful and is poorly lit, so that we cannot get a good view of what was staged.
Es Devlin’s set design also concentrates on claustrophobia, by containing the scenes within a rotating box that is redressed for each of the nine scenes. An office scene works well and the kitchen scene was effective enough, but overall the set has nothing to do with depicting New York, which I would argue is a strong character in the play. It is the big city and all of the grind of that turbulent world as it dramatically sprang forth in the 1920s that so affects Helen. The settings mostly look like they are in the cabins of some sort of sailing ship––claustrophobic yes, but hardly New York in the West 40’s.
Michael Krass’ costumes do a bit better by defining the period well, but even though color is introduced the effect doesn’t improve the blandness of the overall production. The lighting design by Jane Cox is appropriate during the scenes, but the strange attempt at being expressionistic in the transitions with long bars of moving slats of light only obscures what looks to be some elaborately choreographed sequences. Then there is the dramatic possibilities of the final scene that have been rather neglected when the scene should have been the most impressive of the production. The combination of the elements of the production all just petters out with a simple flash of light.