Expressionist plays by women don’t often get revivals on Broadway, so it was a surprise to hear that Roundabout would be reviving Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play Machinal this season, with Rebecca Hall in the lead role. Lyndsey Turner, best known for her work at London’s Royal Court, makes her New York directorial debut with this fast-paced, almost magical production of a play about society’s expectations of women and how one woman chooses to break free of those expectations. With a cast of 18 and a rotating set that has many tricks up its sleeve, Roundabout’s production of Machinal is delightful and overwhelming in the best way possible.
Machinal, which Treadwell based on a real-life tabloid story from 1927, shows how women in the twenties, even when they worked and were smart, never fully had control over their lives. The Young Woman, Helen, haltingly travels through the life stages that are expected of her, until, finally, something causes her to crack and her breakdown is shocking and tragic. Hall infuses her lost Young Woman with neuroses and sympathy. She has a great command of the often difficult text and her presence onstage is arresting. Michael Cumpsty plays the Husband as a perfectly confused yet creepy man of his time. The scene between the two of them on their honeymoon is so uncomfortable and played exceptionally by Hall and Cumpsty. The rest of the company is consistently superb. Other characters appear or reappear or change costume with fantastic sleight of hand and the wheel around which Hall’s Young Woman travels is both metaphorical and practical.
Turner has done excellent work of directing an ambitious production that relies on choreography (and backstage machinations) almost as much as it relies on acting. One wrong step in the production and the whole machine falls apart, which, of course, is the theme of the play, as well. A couple times, in quieter scenes, the audience can hear the set being constructed behind the action, which can be distracting, but in hindsight, I wonder if this is intentional. A way to remind the audience that they are watching a machine in motion both in the story and on the stage itself.
THEATRE REVIEW by Kate Mulley