In 1925, Queens housewife Ruth Snyder entered into an affair with corset salesman Judd Gray. With the reluctant help of her new lover, Ruth began to plot the murder of her older husband, magazine art editor Albert Snyder. To no avail she made multiple attempts on his life — up to seven — until finally she and Judd succeeded in murdering Albert in his sleep and organized the scene to make it look like a burglary. With an inconsistent story from Ruth, a false alibi from Judd, and a poorly restaged crime scene, the pair was arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced to death by electric chair.
The trial at the Long Island City Courthouse was a media sensation, attended by the likes of newspaperman Damon Runyon and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Also paying attention was a young journalist named Sophie Treadwell. Treadwell would use the story as the inspiration for her 1928 drama, Machinal, now widely considered a landmark example of American Expressionism, despite the fact that it hasn't been seen on Broadway in 86 years.
Thanks to Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, Machinal is finally again seeing the footlights, in an extraordinary production helmed by rising British director Lyndsey Turner. Rebecca Hall stars, in her Broadway debut. Laden with staccato rhythms, a plot that emerges like misshapen shards of glass, and a distinctly unhappy ending, the drama is an odd selection for Roundabout, but this bold choice pays off big-time.
In keeping with the Expressionistic style, the characters are archetypically named. Hall stars as "Young Woman," the Snyder stand-in whose desire to break free from the confines of her life and find a place in the dehumanized industrial-age world leads to one fatal decision. Treadwell provides the audience with snippets from this woman's life — a stifling home life with her mother (Suzanne Bertish); a marriage of convenience to her significantly older boss (Michael Cumpsty); the mentally horrifying birth of their child; her sudden intimacy with a lover (Morgan Spector); and the consequences of the newfound freedom that this provides.
Turner's production doesn't shy away from the darkest edges of Treadwell's text, and with the magnificent Hall front and center, watching Machinal is the harrowing experience it should be. Not only does Hall infuse this woman with an intelligence that's well beyond her 31 years, but she burrows herself so deeply in the character that we lose sight of the fact that she's an actress playing a role. It's no shock that Hall, known stateside for her film roles in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Iron Man 3, has stage chops — her extensive UK résumé includes a host of Shakespeare and other classic works — but this is a performance that goes beyond your average Broadway debut.
And true to what the role requires, Hall's central character is only completely comfortable when playing opposite Spector, whose "Lover" is seductive with a snakelike charm. Bertish and, in particular, the droning Cumpsty, are also quite good, expertly playing up the overbearing claustrophobia that makes the Hall's lead want to jump out of her skin.
With costumes by Michael Krass in a color scheme of gray and black, noir-style lighting by Jane Cox, menacing sounds by Matt Tierney, and a jaw-dropping whirligig of a set created by Es Devlin, Machinal looks unlike anything Broadway has seen in recent memory. Most important, this team of designers ably supports Turner's vision and evokes the dystopian universes Rod Serling created in his popular television series The Twilight Zone. This production is a vibrant rediscovery of an American classic heretofore confined to college classrooms. Treadwell's play is given everything it deserves and more.
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