Monday, June 10, 2024

American Plays in London: Machinal and Long Day’s Journey into Night

Rosie Sheehy in Machinal. (Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

The English director Richard Jones did a fine job with Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, which began at the Old Vic and was showcased at the Armory in New York seven years ago. But his take on another 1920s expressionist classic, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, which just closed at the Old Vic, is a mistake pretty much from beginning to end. Machinal, inspired by the Ruth Snyder murder trial, is a feminist take on the protest play that was more or less forgotten for decades after its 1928 premiere and rediscovered when the Public Theatre revived it in 1990. (Arthur Hopkins directed the original production on a set designed by the legendary Robert Edmond Jones, with Zita Johann in the leading role.) Like other signal American expressionist screeds of the era, The Hairy Ape and Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine, Machinal lashes out at the mechanized society that squashes individualist impulse and wrecks the soul, but Treadwell was the first playwright to identify that society as specifically patriarchal. The protagonist, known for the first half of the play only by the emblematic title the Young Woman, slaves in an office until her boss proposes marriage; she accepts him because he can make her life and that of her widowed mother comfortable (and, we assume, she’ll lose her job if she turns him down). But he’s insensitive and self-involved and he repels her physically. She finds childbirth torturous and doesn’t feel any love for her baby; Treadwell is the first dramatist to put post-partum depression on the stage. It isn’t until the Young Woman, finally referred to her by her name, Helen, goes to a speakeasy with a friend and is picked up by a handsome young adventurer who takes her to bed that she experiences any semblance of freedom and happiness. When the affair is over she kills her husband and is sentenced to the electric chair.

Like The Hairy Ape and The Adding Machine, Machinal doesn’t veer from its firm agenda; among expressionist protest plays from this period, O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones is more off the beaten path. But Machinal’s feminist content makes it very unusual, as do the Young Woman’s stream-of-consciousness interior monologues, and the play is strong stuff. Jones makes some interesting visual choices, especially in the final two episodes, but his showy theatricality steamrolls over the play’s complexities, and it’s so noisy and assaultive that it winds up being an endurance test for the audience. In the second episode, “Domestic,” in which Helen tries to talk to her banal, single-minded mother about romance and vocalize her doubts about marrying her boss, the two women screech at each other; in the post-childbirth sequence, “Maternal,” a man with a jackhammer drills into the floor next to Helen’s twisting, gyrating body to convey her distress; in the trial scene, “The Law,” strobe lights stab at the audience. Jones would also make his point if he had the actors descend on the theatergoers and batter our skulls with tin cans. Rosie Sheehy, who plays the Young Woman, employs an undifferentiated shrill attack on all her lines, and she seems so unmoored from the moment she appears, crushed in a subway car, that you have to rely on the narrative to understand the character’s trajectory. You can’t rely on the dialogue because there’s so little variation in her line readings and she races through them so fast that much of the time you can’t even make out what she’s saying.

Jones and Sheehy miss just about everything that’s compelling in the text. The Mother (Buffy Davis) is whining and stubborn, but Treadwell suggests the reasons she can’t dig up any sympathy for her daughter’s plight – a combination of fear for both Helen’s survival and her own, bitter personal disenchantment (we sense she was once like her daughter), and a lack of imagination encouraged by her proscribed role in a society controlled by men. Helen has a marvelous speech in which she queries her feelings about the man she’s considering sleeping next to for the rest of her life; it’s one of the subtlest pieces of dramatic writing I’ve ever encountered, full of tiny tonal and emotional shifts. I’ve watched undergraduate actresses work their way through it in an Audition Techniques class; it’s a marathon, and it can inspire their best efforts. The way Sheehy reads the speech, it’s just a blur. In “Intimate,” the post-coital scene between Helen and her lover (Pierro Niel-Mee), Treadwell shows us how her first satisfying sexual experience stirs her to romanticize what to the man is merely a casual pleasure and then to work her way through her disappointment to acceptance that he’s not her ticket out of her marriage; and Treadwell dramatizes this emotional journey without make the lover look like a bastard. For some reason Jones begins the scene in the dark (Adam Silverman designed the lighting) and brings in the light only very slowly, and even after we can make out what the hell the two actors are doing, the staging is bland and inexpressive and so are the performances. There are at least four different ideas circulating in the prison scene, which is truly masterly. Just before she’s marched off to her death, Helen’s mother comes to say goodbye. At first Helen refuses to see her, proclaiming her a stranger, but right at the end, as she’s being separated from her mother forever, Helen utters a plea that her mother try to make a better world for her granddaughter. It’s the single hopeful note in the play. In this production I couldn’t hear it because the two women were screaming at each other.

Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Photo: Johan Persson)

The only reason to see the West End revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night is Brian Cox as James Tyrone, and I assume that Cox’s popularity as a result of his TV series Succession is the raison d’être of Jeremy Herrin’s production. The rest of the cast all act in different styles, and none of them works. Patricia Clarkson takes a pared-down Method approach to Mary, rendering most of her drug-addled speeches very fast and with a flat affect that washes out the lyricism in O’Neill’s language and fails to distinguish individual moments. By contrast, Laurie Kynaston as Edmund is full of affectation. At least he seems to be trying for something, though I couldn’t say precisely what; as Jamie, Daryl McCormack, who was the sex worker opposite Emma Thompson in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, doesn’t play a character at all, just a series of attitudes. His reading of the indelible drunk scene where Jamie warns Edmund that the dead, ghostly part of Jamie wants to destroy his brother is so lame it’s infuriating. Louisa Harland, as Cathleen, the Irish émigré domestic, struts and talks like a student in an MFA acting program who hasn’t bothered to think about the early-twentieth-century setting. Adding insult to injury is Lizzie Clachan’s ugly set, which contains so little furniture (and nothing on the walls) that you don’t believe anyone actually lives in this Connecticut cottage. I understand that Tyrone is a tightwad and that Mary is always complaining that their house has never been a real home, but the literal-mindedness Clachan has applied to those details is ridiculously implausible – Mary doesn’t mean that he’s never gone out and bought enough furniture to make the front parlor look like more than a summer-camp cabin.

– 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