If Theodore Dreiser had been a woman and that woman wrote the novel “An American Tragedy” as a play, you’d have Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 drama, “Machinal.” Or something very much like it.
“Machinal,” which opened Thursday in a Roundabout Theater revival at the American Airlines Theater, is receiving its first Broadway revival. The original 1928 production is notable for providing a very young Clark Gable with his Broadway debut. This 2014 staging is notable for giving Rebecca Hall her stunning Broadway debut and proving that “Machinal” is an arresting and not some old chestnut that deserves to be cracked open only once every century.
It helps, too, that director Lyndsey Turner (another Broadway deb) and her design team (Es Devlin, Michael Krass, Jane Cox, Matt Tierney) have choreographed this story, based on a real-life case of a woman who murdered her husband, as if it were a very modern atonal opera.
As with Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” Treadwell’s “Machinal” is an indictment of capitalism. But where Dreiser’s prose is heavy and purple, Treadwell’s dialogue is staccato with a swift snap to it. Her unnamed heroine (Hall) fears becoming a machine like everyone else in her office. Hers is a dead-end secretarial job, and the only way out is marriage to the boss (Michael Crumpsty) who can provide for her poverty-stricken mother (Suzanne Bertish). The patriarchy extends beyond the office and home to the hospital, where even an unwanted baby feeds her alienation and she takes a lover (Morgan Spector in a standout performance) after a brief meeting in a speakeasy.
Treadwell doesn’t so much explain her heroine’s behavior, rather she gives us a quick 90-minute glimpse into her brain. It’s fascinating.
“Machinal” is structured in nine scenes, with big jumps in time between most of the scenes: one moment she murders her husband, the next moment she’s on trial, and so on. That elliptical nature only adds to the drama’s jarring tone. While Turner loses some of that dissonance by providing dialogue-less segues that bridge the gaps, it’s never less than dazzling to watch this fluid parade on Devlin’s revolving set. Visually, the production often recalls an urban contradiction that is a hallmark of Edward Hopper’s paintings: loneliness coupled with a total lack of privacy.
At first glance, Hall seems to have wandered in from another production, and that is a very good choice. Everybody around her has already succumbed to the mechanical cacophony around them; she resists and loses her sanity. Only Spector’s apparent affection matches her humanity.