Wednesday, January 8, 2014


This afternoon, I saw Roundabout's production of Sophie Treadwell's legendary Expressionistic drama Machinal. If you haven't seen it yet, do. This is the first Broadway revival of the groundbreaking play, and the production, directed by Lyndsey Turner, is stunning.

Treadwell was one of only a handful of American Expressionist playwrights (the others being Eugene O'Neill and Elmer Rice) who could hold a candle to their European counterparts. Though she wrote more than 40 plays, twelve of which received major productions, today she is remembered almost exclusively for her 1928 masterpiece Machinal.

The title is a neologism taken from a French word meaning mechanical, or relating to a machine. Pronunciations vary. Apparently, Treadwell herself preferred MA-shin-al, but I've heard folks at Roundabout are saying ma-SHIN-al. My old theatre history professor used to say MOCK-en-al. Whatever.

The point is, modern life is like a machine. (For its London premiere, the play was retitled The Life Machine.) The play shows nine episodes in and around New York City. Roundabout's production featured a revolving set designed by Es Devlin. Each time it turns, the audience sees a separate transitional scene in mime. A crowded subway car. A wedding. Couples necking in the shadows. Photographers getting a shot of the murder suspect.

And yes, murder is what it's about. Treadwell was a journalist who had covered a number of murder trials. She said herself that the play was suggested by the trial of Ruth Snyder, a long island woman who was executed at Sing Sing Prison the same year the play opened. Snyder had conspired with her lover to kill her husband and get his insurance money. Treadwell's heroine is far more interesting.

In this production, Rebecca Hall played the character identified as "Young Woman." Though we later learn her name is Helen, names are rarely important in Expressionist drama. Like in the plays of Reinhard Sorge and Georg Kaiser, this is a world where you are what you do: Telephone Girl, Doctor, Lover, Jailer.

In the first scene, Hall portrays her character as out of place. She wants to get out, to have space to breath, but she can't even get her typewriter to work in this world that is dominated by machines. The scene contains a harrowing stream-of-consciousness monologue that is prescient of the type of writing Samuel Beckett would do later on, and which Hall absolutely nails.

At home, we see the Young Woman with her mother, who is no model of maternal affection. As the scene is played out, the audience glimpses at the sides of the stage younger versions of the protagonist, her mother, and her now absent father. The intrusion of memory serves as another stream-of-consciousness device, as the Young Woman decides whether or not to marry her boss.

She does marry him--but to get away from her mother rather than for love. We witness their gloomy honeymoon, then see Young Woman in a maternity ward shortly after she has given birth. This is one of Treadwell's gutsiest scenes. The Young Woman admits that she never wanted a child and that she has no affection for the girl to whom she has given birth. The nurse, wonderfully played by Maria-Christina Oliveras, tries to convince her that her feelings aren't too out of the ordinary, and that once she has had some time with her baby in her arms, she will surely feel differently. The Young Woman knows better, though. Even motherhood is just part of the machine that dominates her. She might not know what she wants, but she knows it is not this. She must not submit to the machine.

Episode five is titled "Prohibited" and appropriately takes place in a speakeasy, but there are more prohibited things there than just the alcohol. An older man entices a young man for a homosexual encounter, a couple discuss having an abortion, and the protagonist meets the character known as "Lover," played by Morgan Spector. We next see them together sharing a joyful moment in his bed, and then see Young Woman back at home with her husband again. Her only possibility of escape seems to be murder.

Treadwell presents a compelling courtroom drama, complete with reporters who have completely opposite takes on the trial. She then follows Young Woman into her condemned cell, where a priest tries to offer comfort, but the Young Woman responds more to the singing of another prisoner, because he too knows what it's like to be condemned to die. Eventually, she must submit to her last, most brutal indignities, including the forced cutting of her hair, and a terrifying execution that brings out new meaning in the title of the final episode: "A Machine."

Treadwell lived into her 80s, dying in Arizona, where her will directed the Diocese of Tucson to use all of her royalties for the benefit of Native American children. So go see Machinal, experience some great theatre, and help some kids while you're at it!