Monday, February 17, 2014

Roundabout’s Machinal

Rebecca Hall & Morgan Spector in Machinal (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Before it was rediscovered in the early nineties – it was produced at the Public in New York in 1990 and three years later at the National Theatre in London – Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal was a forgotten artifact of the experimental American theatre of the twenties. (There was a TV adaptation in the mid-fifties and a short-lived off-Broadway revival in 1960.) The script was out of print for decades; when I wanted to teach it, I had to rely on an old anthology of early American plays. Now the play pops up occasionally on college campuses – my own department has mounted it – though Lyndsey Turner’s production at the Roundabout Theatre marks the first time it’s appeared on Broadway since its 1928 premiere. Treadwell adapted the generic German Expressionist protest drama (the protagonist moves through one episode after another, on a journey of self-discovery that leads inevitably to disaster) most famously developed by Georg Kaiser in From Morn to Midnight. She wasn’t the first American writer to do so – O’Neill had got there before her with The Hairy Ape, and Elmer Rice with The Adding Machine – but to the usual themes of this kind of play (the soulless mechanization of modern society, the restrictions of class, the grim triumph of materialism) she added a specifically feminist orientation. She wasn’t the only playwright working to take this genre in new directions: the first American Expressionist drama I know of, O’Neill’s 1920 The Emperor Jones, was about race. But she and Susan Glaspell, whose 1916 Trifles was in last summer’s season at the Shaw Festival, were pioneers, since hardly any women were getting plays of any description produced in the early decades of the twentieth century, let alone feminist ones.

Like Glaspell, Treadwell was moved to write by the true story of a woman’s murder of her husband and presented the killer sympathetically. Trifles is about the death of a farmer by his mistreated wife; Machinal was inspired by the case of Ruth Snyder, who had been sent to the electric chair. The Young Woman (played at the Roundabout by Rebecca Hall) is a stenographer who marries her boss (Michael Cumpsty), at the urging of her mother (Suzanne Bertish), because it’s the practical thing to do: she’s sure to lose her job if she turns him down, and he can keep her – and her mother – in a far more comfortable lifestyle than the one to which they’re accustomed. But she’s repulsed by him, not just by his physical attributes but also by his crassness and insensitivity – on their wedding night his idea of foreplay is to tell dirty jokes. She bears his child but motherhood doesn’t engage her; to her it’s just one more version of the societal machine she felt strapped to as an office worker, regimented by men (the doctors in the hospital are as controlling and uncomprehending as her husband). Her life is joyless, suffocating, until she accompanies a friend to a speakeasy and allows herself to be picked up by a free-spirited man (Morgan Spector, in the role created by the young, Hollywood-bound Clark Gable). Their affair, which lasts several months before he emigrates to Mexico, is the first experience she’s ever had that makes her feel that she’s not trapped inside the machine. Unable to bear her marriage after this taste of freedom, she kills her husband and is sent to her own death.

Michael Cumpsty & Rebecca Hall
The play is full of surprises. It includes a couple of stream-of-consciousness monologues for the Young Woman, one of which expresses the revulsion she feels for her baby after giving birth, which may still be the only scene in the American canon about post-partum depression. But Machinal isn’t just a historically important work; it’s a fine play constructed around a tenderly and complexly drawn portrait of a sensitive woman whose quest for a freedom she doesn’t have a chance at makes her a tragic heroine. Her extramarital adventure hones her consciousness of her situation as well as bringing her the only sweetness she’s ever tasted. Significantly, we don’t learn the Young Woman’s name, Helen, until the speakeasy scene, “Illicit,” where her first encounter with the Lover is juxtaposed with other forbidden scenarios – a couple contemplating an abortion (though the word is never used: Treadwell’s unofficial source here is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” published the year before), a middle-aged gay man seducing another man in his twenties. Only here and in the post-coital tête-à-tête that follows, “Intimate,” is she given the chance to explore her individuality. These two episodes are also written in a realist style, whereas most of the play is firmly expressionistic.

Turner makes an effort to balance these two styles more than the script indicates. The scene between Helen and her mother early on in the play tones down Treadwell’s caricature of the Mother, which makes her less of a nagging harridan than a pathetic specimen, desperately banal and easily wounded. (Unfortunately Bertish isn’t the right actress to bring off this particular modification.) The production doesn’t go for the full-scale expressionism you expect, though Es Devlin’s constantly revolving rectangular set, which underlines the structure of the play and even allows for some glancing visuals that aren’t mandated by the script – a newsstand, the Young Woman’s wedding, and so forth – is spectacular. Devlin worked with Turner on the Lucy Kirkwood political drama Chimerica at the Almeida in London, which moved in the same way, though you certainly wouldn’t say that Devlin is just repeating herself here. Visually the most striking scenes are the ones in which the action is bifurcated by an upstage window (the office, honeymoon and hospital scenes) – and the exciting finale, where the set spins and spins as the Young Woman marches to her death past curious, commenting bystanders, the stagecraft, which feels self-willed, embodying the meaning of the title. The palette of the production is mostly grays and blacks and browns, so the occasional bursts of color – the magazines on the newsstand, or Helen’s rose-print silk as she rushes through a crowd after her first assignation with the Lover – are arresting. (The show is enhanced by Michael Krass’s costumes and Jane Cox’s distinctly expressionist lighting.)

It’s a good production, though Turner doesn’t do enough with the ensemble – “Illicit” is a missed opportunity – and the courtroom episode feels very long. (It is too long; I’d cut half of it, even though the entire show comes in at only ninety-five minutes without an intermission.) And though Rebecca Hall gives a technically brilliant performance, she’s rarely moving in the role of the Young Woman. Part of the problem may be her vocal choice: she stays in the high register throughout, and though you may be impressed by how much emotional range she can pack into it, you begin to ache for some lower notes. Hall is affecting only in the back-to-back episodes “Illicit” and “Intimate”: in the first we see how marriage has embittered her and made her more of a risk-taker, and in the second she shows a different kind of vulnerability from the earlier scenes – Helen’s romantic, optimistic side, which we saw only a hint of in her frustrated attempt to commune with her mother in the second scene. It seems to me, though, that this character should break our hearts straight through the play, and though Hall is a splendid actress, both on stage and in film, she doesn’t do that. She receives excellent support from both Cumpsty and Spector. Cumpsty, one of the most dependable actors on the New York scene, manages to make it clear why Helen would cringe at his touch but without turning the Husband into a monster. Spector has a rough, outlaw charm in the speakeasy; he seems self-involved and opportunistic and possibly dangerous. But in bed with Helen, he exposes a softer side: we see that he cares for her even though he puts his freedom first – and we respect the fact that he’s upfront about his priorities. I haven’t seen Spector on stage before (his bio in the playbill indicates that I’ve seen him on TV but didn’t remember him), but he makes a strong impression here.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment