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+Machinal+, by Sophie Treadwell, was inspired by the real-life case of executed murderer Ruth Snyder, and is a favourite of theatre groups dedicated to neglected work by female playwrights. While +Machinal+ retains sufficient interest to require no gender-based apologies, its blunt dramaturgy and psychological lapses make it hard to love, even as many aspects of the Roundabout Theatre’s new staging, showcasing a Broadway debut by Rebecca Hall, are first-rate.
Directed keenly by Lyndsey Turner, this production represents the work’s first Broadway revival since its premiere, in 1928. That staging featured a relative unknown called Clark Gable, and it is a little surprising that, by the time Gable trekked west a few years later, a Hollywood studio did not translate +Machinal+ to the screen.
The toughness of the story – a young office worker called Helen marries her unimaginative boss, dutifully has a child, and drifts off into an affair before murdering her husband – seems to have been tailor-made for a young Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis. But Helen’s intense psychological pain, conveyed in streaming monologues, would have been dampened.
And it is precisely in those speeches that Hall shines. The tremulousness of her voice rises and falls wonderfully, as she announces her emotions in tabloid-headline style. Helen is transfixed by newspaper stories of real-life crime, as her husband – portrayed by Michael Cumpsty, who reads the character’s cliché-laden lines in marvelous subtle deadpan – focuses on economic news.
As Helen moves from domestic horror to domestic horror, Es Devlin’s wooden-cube set revolves in a way that manages to suggest the way that modern life grinds a freedom-seeking woman down. If the story embodies a quintessential kind of 1920s Manhattan modernism, filled with typewriters clacking and speakeasies jumping, the temptation is to push the narrative into heavy late-expressionism mode. By the time Helen escapes her stifling home to meet her lover in a bar, this production has become more nearly expressionism-lite.
The speakeasy section has seemed to have jumped a scene or two: one minute Helen is so debilitated she cannot get out of bed, the next she has donned a flapper dress for a girls’ night out on the town. If such lapses make it hard to embrace +Machinal+ fully, they also pave the way for the production’s most touching scene: a heartfelt exchange between Helen and her lover, given gruff tenderness by Morgan Spector.