Sophie Treadwell's MACHINAL is the best work to come out of American playwrights' fascination with German expressionism during the 1920s. Back in my day, everyone studied Elmer Rice's THE ADDING MACHINE and O'Neill's attempts at expressionism such as THE HAIRY APE. However, some of the most interesting playwrights of the period were women who were ignored for a long time: Rachel Crothers, Zona Gale, Sophie Treadwell. In MACHINAL, Treadwell places her heroine, only listed as "Young Woman" in the script (expressionists believed in giving characters universality through referring to them only generically) into a mechanized, male dominated world. Her heroine is too much a dreamer to survive in such unfeeling pragmatism, yet her dreams are only vague longings. Her workplace is filled with machines and machine-like people. Her mother has been so beaten down by the system that she can only nag. The Young Woman enters into a loveless, but practical marriage with the Vice-President of the company where she works as a stenographer, though she sees marriage and motherhood as traps. Her only moment of freedom comes during a one-night stand with a handsome, sexy drifter (originally played by the young Clark Gable!), which makes her hate her marriage all the more. After killing her husband, she is tried for murder and executed. The Young Woman has vague notions of a life outside of male-dominated discourse but only gets more trapped within that discourse, spoken by doctors, lawyers, priests, reporters. Her husband speaks in banal cliches. She sees the man she has sex with as a free spirit, but the freedom he experiences is only available to men. He is back in Mexico when she is tried for murder (in her days as a journalist, Treadwell interviewed Pancho Villa). The mechanistic, masculine discourse is balanced by constant erotic banter in the background of many scenes, but sex doesn't seem to offer more than momentary release and is presented as predatory. In a daring vignette for 1928, Treadwell shows us a middle-aged gay man trying to seduce an innocent boy in a speakeasy. When the Young Woman tries to utter her feelings, they come out in a stream-of-counsciouness interior monologue that is barely coherent. Treadwell's tragedy is as timely today as it was in 1928.
MACHINAL is a tricky play to produce. It takes a director who respects Treadwell's style, but who also sees the contemporary relevance of the play. I don't know why the Roundabout chose British director Lyndsey Turner to direct this production. Certainly there are more gifted female American directors who deserved the opportunity to work at this prestigious theatre and who could have done a better job. The last time I saw a Turner production -- CHIMERICA at the Almeida Theatre in London this summer -- she botched the play by putting it on a revolving stage. The constant revolving between scenes slowed down the rhythm of the play. More important, one did not have any sense of when or where a scene was taking place, which was crucial to understanding the script. Her production also ignored the sight line problems of the Almeida. Surprise, surprise! Turner has placed MACHINAL on a revolving stage with lots of extraneous business between the play's nine scenes as the stage turns and turns. She seems to want to make the play cinematic when the best choice would be to make it theatrical -- a different matter altogether. Turner wants to "open out" the play, as film directors call it -- to throw in silent scenes not in the play between the scenes Treadwell wrote. Perhaps these are to cover costume changes, but they destroy the jagged rhythm of the play. So the scenes for which Treadwell wrote dialogue are interspersed with scenes Turner has invented. More important, once the stage stops turning, we are given scenes treated more realistically than the script calls for. This is particularly problematic in the trial scene, which in this production seems like a bad PERRY MASON episode. We have been inundated with courtroom dramas on television over the past sixty years, so this scene, played as it is in this production, seemed particularly stilted. Turner should have been willing to be more stylized.
Still, this production is worth seeing because of the play and because of Rebecca Hall's performance. There's a tension here between the purposely flat style of the play and Hall's wish to present the Young Woman as a three-dimensional character, but Hall is one of those actresses who is so magnetic on stage (and screen) that she is able to justify her choices and rise above the heavy, uneven production that surrounds her. Michael Cumpsty, one of our best actors, tries to play the purposely banal, repetitive language within the realistic framework of the production, and Morgan Spector balances The Lover's attraction and his cynicism. Everyone would be better in a production that had a consistent point of view toward the play and its style and was less concerned with visual effects, but they and the script make this production of MACHINAL worth seeing.
Es Devlin has created a massive, revolving set where simplicity would have been more effective, but that's more the director's fault than the designer's. The tendency in many British productions, particularly at the National Theatre of Great Britain, is to overdo the scenery as if spectacle were essential to any dramatic production. In her stage directions, Treadwell sets out exactly what she thinks each scene needs. One doesn't have to follow that religiously. Indeed, anything is possible if the director has a clear, consistent point of view toward the material. Once again, I felt that Lyndsey Turner was getting in the way of a full appreciation and understanding of this fascinating script.
Still, I'm grateful to the Roundabout for presenting a seldom performed American classic. It was worth the trek out on a snowy night.
MACHINAL by Sophie Treadwell, produced by the Roundabout Theatre at the American Airlines Theatre. January 2, 2014.