Dramatizations of unhappy women killing their husbands often end up like histrionic Lifetime movies, but few works on the subject land with the power of the Lyndsey Turner’s breathtaking production of Sophie Treadwell’s expressionistic 1928 play, Machinal, now on view at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre. After 100 minutes watching this bleak, wrenching drama – loosely based on the real-life story of Ruth Snyder – you may need a few minutes to even get up from your seat.
That visceral reaction is due in large part to the incredible, award-worthy performance of British actress Rebecca Hall in the central role of Helen, a painfully shy, neurotic, and somewhat oppressed young woman). Ill equipped for office work, or even life in general, Helen is desperate to fulfill societal expectations, as well as to escape her stifling home life with her nagging mother (the superb Suzanne Bertish). So she enters into an ill-fated marriage with her boorish boss Mr. Jones (Michael Cumpsty, in yet another excellent turn). During the play’s first half, Hall stunningly captures all of Helen’s unease with even the smallest tasks of daily existence, making us almost co-conspirators in her eventual, unlikely crime.
The catalyst for Helen’s change in behavior is her chance meeting with a tough-but-tender revolutionary (a wonderful, hunky Morgan Spector), who unleashes her hidden well of passion. Hall’s sudden blossoming into a fully breathing, seemingly “normal” young woman is a marvel to behold; it’s as if we’re watching a completely different person on stage. Accordingly, it’s even sadder to see Helen once again withdraw into her old behavior once she returns to her husband and their drab life.
If the production does falter slightly, it’s when Turner amps up the proceedings a bit too much in the show’s courtroom sequence, which periodically resembles the musical “Chicago.” But the aftermath of the trial, as Helen awaits her fate in jail, is both moving and harrowing, and Hall’s emotional vulnerability in this final segment is beyond stunning.
The director also deserves major kudos for her remarkably inventive use of Es Devlin’s constantly revolving, continually changing set, and for her keen eye for creating evocative visual tableaux utilizing the large ensemble.
In a spring Broadway season that is about to be dominated by musicals, Machinal is a cold, wintry blast of air – yet one that turns out to be remarkably refreshing.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Rebecca Hall, Suzanne Bertish, Michael Cumpsty, Morgan Spector, Damian Baldet, Ashley Bell, Jeff Biehl, Arnie Burton, Ryan Dinning, Scott Drummond, Dion Graham, Edward Hyland, Jason Loughlin, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Daniel Pearce, Henny Russell, Karen Walsh, Michael Warner
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036