American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 2, $52-$127
Inspired by the true story of Ruth Snyder, journalist and playwright Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal is back on Broadway for the first time since it bowed at the Plymouth Theatre in 1928. The highly mannered, expressionist work sets the tense tone from the very start, as a young woman (Rebecca Hall) feels trapped on a crowded subway train, pushing her way through the mass of mostly male straphangers to get out and catch her breath. Es Devlin’s sensational four-sided set then rotates to an office, where a quartet of workers (Ashley Bell, Ryan Dinning, Edward James Hyland, and Henny Russell, who all play multiple roles) are performing their menial tasks and gossiping about the young woman, Miss A, and the boss, George H. Jones (Michael Cumpsty), in rhythmic, staccato language. Mr. J, a boring blowhard who speaks in clichés and tells the same stories over and over again, has proposed to Miss A, and after arriving at work late, she soon lets loose a machine-gun soliloquy of inner turmoil that begins, “Marry me – wants to marry me – George H Jones – George H Jones and Company – Mrs George H Jones – Mrs George H Jones. Dear Madame – marry – do you take this man to be your wedded husband – I do – to love honor and to love – kisses – no – I can’t – George H Jones – How would you like to marry me – What do you say – Why Mr Jones I – let me look at your little hands – you have such pretty little hands – let em hold your pretty little hands – George H Jones – Fat hands – flabby hands – don’t touch me – please – fat hands are never weary – please don’t – married – all girls – most girls – married – babies – a baby – curls – little curls all.” Upon returning home, she discusses the marriage proposal with her mother (Suzanne Bertish). While the young woman admits she doesn’t love Mr. J, her mother blurts out, “Love! — what does that amount to? Will it clothe you? Will it feed you? Will it pay the bills?” Their debate occasionally fades into the background as a series of brief interludes play out to their right and left in which neighborhood couples are immersed in their own issues of love, romance, and fidelity. Ultimately, Miss A decides to go ahead with the marriage, and it isn’t long before she feels trapped yet again, now with a child to raise as well, and she considers cavorting with a hunky adventurer (Morgan Spector), a decision that ultimately leads to tragedy.
Machinal is told in nine episodes, which have such titles as “To Business,” “Home,” “Honeymoon,” “Prohibited,” and “Intimate,” essentially following the expected path of women in the 1920s, one that handcuffs Miss A. The play tries to contemporize the plight of women but, under the direction of Lindsey Turner (Chimera, Posh), it can’t break out of the overall feeling of being too dated and old-fashioned. In her long-awaited Broadway debut, Hall (The Town, As You Like It at BAM) plays the young woman with an elegiac tone, as if her life is already a lost cause simply because of her sex; born at the wrong time, she is likely to have thrived in the modern era. Cumpsty (The Winslow Boy, End of the Rainbow) gives the stuffed-shirt husband a sympathetic sadness, while Spector (Harvey, A View from the Bridge) is the polar opposite, bold and sexy as the potential lover, a role originated by Clark Gable. But the real star of the Roundabout revival is Devlin’s rotating set, which, as it turns, includes momentary interstitial scenes that immerse the audience in 1920s New York, along with costumes (by Michael Krass) and lighting (by Jane Cox) that bathe the production in black, white, and gray, illuminating Miss A’s drab, colorless life.