Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Machinal: Easy to Admire, Harder to Enjoy

Machinal was written and produced in 1928 and has been absent from Broadway since.  Roundabout’s excellent production of this show gives full voice to the piece, where humans fit like cogs into world that is just beginning to embrace the machine age.  Machinal tells this story through soundscape, stylize language, and a set that functions to remove the actors from emotion.
Rebecca Hall and her broken machine in Machinal
 The stage at the American Airlines Theatre hosts a rotating square, where black and white and beige define the spaces.  The opening scene on a subway is free of dialog, but not free of noise, movement or sound.  Our heroine, a “Young Woman” played tenderly by Rebecca Hall, is so overcome by the movement of the train, the forced proximity of the passengers, the clockwork impersonalization of the ride that she must flee.

The next scene is a staccato of dialog, interspersed with the new office machines: the clacking of the typewriter, the drone of the adding machine and the rhythm of the switchboard.  The Young Woman attempts to fit in, but it is all too much; she is out of step.  This reclusive quality is seen through the prism of her coworkers – who find it weak, her boss- who finds it endearing, and her mother – who finds it infuriating.  For the Young Woman, her discomfort is a question that she cannot frame, much less answer.

She agrees to marry her boss.  The question, the engagement, in fact all the personal stuff happens out of sight.  We know she has been asked, and next we witness her marriage.  The Young Woman is immediately a wife.  And she has duties and roles to perform.  Her husband expects home life to run on schedule, different than the office schedule, but scheduled nonetheless.  And the Young Woman attempts to conform.

There is a moment where the Young Woman breaks free from the roadmap laid out.  There is a man.  A younger, exotic, sexual man that ignites emotions that she didn’t know she had.  When forced back into the role laid out for her, she rebels and things go badly.
Michael Cumpsty & Rebecca Hall

The actors are excellent in a variety of roles.  As noted Rebecca Hall does wonderful things with a difficult role.  She is rarely more than numb, and credit to her for making it believable without being tiresome.  Michael Chumsty, as The Husband, flings himself fully into this role.  The audience cannot help but both feel pity for and anger at this man.  He is both a product and a captive of his times.  Successful, but limited, Mr. Chumsty’s Husband is all business, whether at the office or at home.

The pace of the dialog is rapid fire and hurried.  As if no one in 1928 has the time to waste on actually conversing, they must speak quickly and move on.  It is effective when done well, and this cast does it very well indeed.

The problem with Machinal is that it is too straightforward.  Set upon a path displayed early to the audience, it proceeds apace, but without surprises.  It is predictable by design, all the surprises happen in between scenes.  The reaction to those actions is what interests the playwright, the reactions are as scripted by time as the working of the machines.  It effectively takes us out character identification.  

And it takes a long time to end.  So long that the audience wonders if it is over until the cast bows occur.

Director Lyndsey Turner has done a wonderful job with the actors, the staging and the sound design.  Unfortunately Machinal ends up being a period piece that is too remote to be engaging.  The length of the final scene serves to remove any identification you feel with the Young Woman.  She stays anonymous.

It is interesting to think what a few changes might have done.  Preserving the essence of the work, but without moving the emotion quite so far away.  Machines are different now, not impersonal but still overwhelming for many.  Machinal deliberately puts a distance between the audience and the performers.  I feel the impact would have been more powerful if only the distance was slightly reduced.
PlaywrightSophie Treadwell
DirectorLyndsey Turner
CastRebecca Hall, Suzanne Bertish, Morgan Spector, Michael Cumpsty

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