BWW Reviews: MACHINAL Plays to a Fascinating Rhythm
Seems the quickest way for a woman playwright to get to Broadway in the late 1920s was to write a social commentary suggested by a recent headline-making murder case. Maurine Dallas Watkins' 1926 Chicago, whose leading lady, Roxie Hart, was inspired by Beulah May Annan, who claimed self-defense in killing her lover, was followed two years later by Sophie Treadwell's Machinal, which opened just eight months after Ruth Snyder died in the electric chair for the murder of her husband.
Though photography was not allowed at her execution, one reporter did manage to sneak in a hidden camera and the next day front pages were emblazoned with a photo of her moment of death; a public act of sensationalism that sent Treadwell to her typewriter.
Chicago was adapted into a well-regarded musical, but Machinal, now revived in its original form in a striking production directed by Lyndsey Turner, chugs to the furious pace of its own rhythms in telling an expressionistic tale of a woman unable to keep up with the full-speed machinations of male-dominated 20th Century life; an ordinary woman driven to an extraordinary deed by a taste of what life can offer when she allows herself the freedom to live as she pleases.
Unnamed and stripped of any biographical details, the central character of the drama, played with chillingly pale, tense timidity by Rebecca Hall, is first observed while panicked by the constrictions of a crowded subway train.
Her colleagues at the tidy office where she works as a stenographer move and speak in the exacting cadences of a Swiss watch. Though her widowed and weathered mother (Suzanne Bertish) warns her against getting married, she accepts her employer's proposal because she feels that being wed is the only option her future holds.
Played with perfectly pleasant innocence by Michael Cumpsty, her husband isn't a bad guy at all, and seems completely oblivious to how his adherence to traditional gender roles is smothering his spouse. Sharing a bed with a jauntily masculine fling (Morgan Spector) gives her the feeling of being "purified," and for once, Hall shines with a confident, satisfied glow, determined not to return to her stifling existence.
In the midst of the jazz age, where women were said to be making great strides toward equality, Machinal's bleak picture of American womanhood must have seemed a shock of realism to playgoers. Nearly a century later, the shock may be the play's continued relevance.