First of all, hats off please to Roundabout Theater Company for picking a play that revolves around the struggle of a woman. Not a Ho-Hum-I’m-So-Rich-And-Confused play. Not a Gee-I’m-White-And-Trying-To-Decide-Which-Guy-Is-Right-For-Me. And DEFINITELY not a I-Don’t-Know-What-My-Man’s-Been-Up-To-But-I’ll-Stand-By-Him play. No sireee. MACHINAL is My-Life-Is-Overwhelming-Bordering-On-Terrifying play.
Set in 1927, this is the story of a Young Woman (Rebecca Hall) who works in the secretarial arena of a small company. The boss, Michael Cumpsty, referred to only as “Mr. J.” takes a shine to her, and like many a woman who saw no other option on the horizon, the Young Woman marries him. After that, things pretty much go to Hell in a handbag.
What people were talking about after the show were two things: the story and the set. And indeed these are the shining elements of this beautifully constructed production. Es Devlin (who designed the set for Theatre For A New Audience’s premier production of Midsummer Night’s Dream) has created a set that turns, turn, turns with such dogged persistence that its movement alone can drive you bonkers. And why the set crew does not get a nod at the curtain call is beyond me. The sandstone colored cube changes locations with each quarter rotation, as does Ms. Hall’s costuming. This superb cast and crew have been choreographed to a fair-thee-well, and you have to pay some serious attention to notice which quadrant is being featured.
The writing is stylized in a manner reminiscent of Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine – the London production of this play was called The Life Machine. Although Machinal is based on the true story of Ruth Snyder from Long Island, who murdered her husband and was executed at Sing Sing, Treadwell has extended her own artistic vision to turn these characters into icons that transcend place and time.
While the ensemble is more than terrific, Ms. Hall’s performance as the Young Woman was as monochromatic as the set. She gives the impression of reciting her lines rather than feeling her way through the dark tunnel of a life in crisis. Michael Cumpsty is given the unenviable task of playing a character who is described by the Young Woman as thin and bald with fat, flabby hands. As excellent an actor as Mr. Cumpsty is – he ain’t none of that. This enormous contradiction of what is in front of us vs. what is being said is a stick in the spokes of this production. In addition Morgan Specter as the Young Woman’s lover seems distracted and provides zero sexual spark.
Still this is a production that is beautiful to watch because of the nearly balletic quality of the evening thanks to the direction, design and the cast’s ensemble work. Although the Young Woman’s walk to the gallows seems to last longer than the entire production, it is a scene that will stay with you: the final unraveling of a life whose legs could never support the weight.
What you take home is the intensity of the tale. And let us not forget that women all over the world are still living this sad story in one form or another. What was brave writing in 1928 is still a cautionary tale today. Women are still invisible, no matter the protestations to the contrary. Why do we always say “he or she” and not the reverse? Why not “women and men in uniform”? Why doesn’t NPR cover women’s sports? Think about that when someone walks into a room of women and men and says “Hey guys.” And no, it is not “just an expression” anymore than Mike Bloomberg telling us to contact our Congressmen is just an expression. Run that one by Nancy Pelosi. Hmmmmmm….
Like I said – hats off to Roundabout. Machinal is a production with an all female design team, a female lead, and a story that resonates with each of us.
By Sophie Treadwell; directed by Lyndsey Turner; sets by Es Devlin; costumes by Michael Krass; lighting by Jane Cox; sound by Matt Tierney; music by Matthew Herbert; hair and wig design by Paul Huntley; choreography by Sam Pinkleton; dialect coach, Kate Wilson; production stage manager, Beverly Jenkins; production manager, Aurora Productions; general manager, Denise Cooper; associate managing director, Greg Backstrom; associate artistic director, Scott Ellis. Presented by the Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director; Harold Wolpert, managing director; Julia C. Levy, executive director; Sydney Beers, general manager. At the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Through March 2. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.