Machinal Review: Is this what feminism looked like in 1928?

Machinal American Airlines TheatreMachinal, now opened in a stunning production at the American Airlines Theater, is the first Broadway revival of Sophie Treadwell’s haunting 1928 play, inspired by the murder trial of housewife Ruth Snyder, who enlisted a corset salesman to do in her husband. The crime shocked the nation: 180 reporters covered her trial; the case also inspired “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

But it is not necessary to know the story of Ruth Snyder to appreciate the Roundabout Theater’s production – and it is no spoiler to know it either. What mattered in Treadwell’s imagination is what would drive a wife and mother to murder — and, the playwright clearly concluded, it was the machine-like monotony of her everyday life.

Machinal means machine-like, and director Lyndsey Turner has taken the title to heart, with startling effect. This may be the best-staged play of the season, certainly one of the most aptly designed.

In the very first scene, we see drab people in drab overcoats shoved together in a line in a subway train car, with lights flashing by and a loud clacking noise, when a young woman works her way into the line.

It is an arresting image, and it instantly recalls scenes of urban life painted by the Ashcan School, who were Treadwell’s contemporaries. Here, for example, is George Luks’ “Subway”


The set revolves, and there is a new scene; we are in the  monotonous office where the young woman works. She arrives late. Her fellow office workers, busy at their switchboard or old-fashioned typewriter or counting machine, want to know why. She explains that she got off the subway before her stop. “I thought I would faint! I had to get out in the air!”

We felt the same way!

The set swivels again to another wordless scene…and so it goes for the 100 intermission-less minutes of the play, episodes in the script alternating with director-created expressionist mime shows of urban life,  the set revolving from office or home or hotel or bar or courtroom to various street scenes that are noisy, crowded, accompanied by loud ominous music, sometimes with footlights that project the actors’ shadows on the back wall, sometime with lights that are too bright or too dark, recreating on stage the painterly effect of chiaroscuro. The point is clear, underscored by the box-like set that frames every scene, both the ones with dialogue and the ones without. The characters are boxed in, trapped, as if in a machine.

As in a machine, there is something inevitable about all that happens. The young woman, Helen (Rebecca Hall) catches the eye of her boss, Mr. George Jones (Michael Cumpsty), who proposes. She tells her mother (Suzanne Bertish) that she can’t marry him because she doesn’t love him.

“Love!” her mother replies. “What does that amount to! Will it clothe you? Will it feed you? Will it pay the bills?”

And so she weds — her mother literally pushing her towards her groom. On their honeymoon, he is all self-satisfied bonhomie; she, repulsed by him, breaks down and cries. The next time we see her, she is in a hospital bed, where she eventually cries out in a monologue that Samuel Beckett could have written — nonsense that somehow makes sense.

Forward to a speakeasy, where she meets a man (Morgan Spector), who picks her up, takes her home, and beds her.

This is followed by husband and wife sitting side by side at home, reading aloud different items from the newspapers they are reading.

George: Record production.

Helen: Girl turns on gas.

George: Sale hits a million

Helen: Woman leaves all for love

Like many of the moments in “Machinal,” the scene is eerie, clever, and also — nearly a century after it was written — too obvious. It must have been astonishing to witness Treadwell’s expressionist experimentation, and her feminist sensibility, when the play ran for 91 performances in 1928, one critic calling it “occasionally eccentric in its style” and “fraught with a beauty unfamiliar to the stage.” What was avant-garde then is familiar now, requiring of current-day audiences nearly an exercise in anthropology.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

The stylized staccato scenes of the play still lend themselves to extraordinary theater in the hands of a good director, which is why, though it has not been on Broadway since 1928, there have been several modern Off-Broadway and London productions.  Good actors help, and Michael Cumpsty, who is one of the most reliable actors on Broadway, delivers a spot-on performance as the fatuous husband with an unhelpful bromide for every occasion. In the hands of a lesser actor, he might be villainous; Cumpsty makes him a credible human being.  Rebecca Hall, a respected British actress making her Broadway debut, plays Helen in a daze, as if shell-shocked by the emptiness and hurry in her life, brought to life only in brief moments of happiness with her lover, and deeper moments of despair. As the lover, Morgan Spector acquits himself handsomely,  upholding a tradition for the role set in the original production, which marked the Broadway debut of a 27-year-old actor named Clark Gable.

But the leads, like the rest of the 17-member cast playing dozens of roles, are supporting players to the work of the designers — Es Devlin (sets), Michael Krass (costumes), lighting (Jane Cox), sound (Matt Tierney.)

The last quarter of “Machinal” switches abruptly to effective if disorienting scenes in a courtroom and prison. We don’t see the murder itself, and — I suspect — this part didn’t interest Treadwell as much. Two years before “Machinal” debuted, another woman playwright, Maurine Dallas Watkins, wrote another Broadway play about notorious real-life murder cases —  “Chicago,” which Kander and Ebb later adapted half a century later into the current Broadway musical.  It was an era, in other words, receptive to stage adaptations of sensational criminal cases — and surely otherwise unreceptive to an early feminist drama. Take away the murder in “Machinal,”  and Treadwell’s play approaches autobiography in ways than its original audiences did not realize. Treadwell was a celebrated journalist as well as a playwright — the first officially accredited female foreign war correspondent — who started checking herself in and out of sanitariums soon after her marriage to sportswriter William O. McGeeghan. According to a biographer, she suffered from the accumulated stress of living in a society that discouraged ambition in women.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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