Written in 1927 by journalist Sophie Treadwell, Machinalˆ—currently in revival on Broadway via the Roundabout Theater Company—was inspired by a sensational murder case of the era, in which a young woman and her lover were elecrtric-chair executed for killing her husband; but the inspiration seems merely a springboard. For whereas real-life Ruth Snyder appears to have been an unsavory and unhinged sort, quite on her own, Ms. Treadwell has made the central figure of the play into a universal symbol for downtrodden women who find themselves manipulated (by the pressures of society and convention) into lives they would not have preferred or chosen. Indeed she doesn’t even name her characters in the cast list; our heroine is merely A Young Woman (Rebecca Hall) whose dialogue and chaotic thoughts (she is the only one who reveals hem) are out of sync with the “machine of life” around her and increasingly chaotic. The other characters, among them “Mother” (Suzanne Bertish), and “A Man” (at first her boss, now soon self-obsessed and oblivious husband; Michael Cumpsty), “A Young Woman” etc. are down to archetypal essences who speak in representative clichés, axioms and colloquial idioms. The surrealistic and entirely intended effect is that of a human machine with a misaligned gear. Even the “Young Man” (Morgan Spector) who will be her lover and provides some temporary relief functions predictably.
Where actors and director are concerned in any production of this play, there’s a sense in which everybody’s palate is perforce limited to the effect; their own creative input must necessarily feed the machine or distort the point of the piece. So all you can do, even at the top of your game, is deliver the mechanism’s moving, with the understanding that you have only your main character’s mental pressure cooker for emotive release; otherwise nuance is achieved in leitmotivic, repetitive rhythm and transparent technique very much emphasized over artistic expression. Neither creative team, players nor audience escape being victim to the material.
Fortunately—if that’s the word—that’s the point, director Lyndsay Turner’s production (imported from the West End replete with its star, though in spite of some native Brits, the supporting cast are domestic, in an Actors Equity context) does exactly that and exactly as well as it should. It makes for a cool evening, with aspects of chill, but that’s its measure of success.
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