Friday, January 10, 2014

'Machinal': Stunning Revival by Roundabout Theatre Company

Resurrecting old theatrical treasures is a real art. Far too many efforts at reviving early twentieth century works turn out to be lost causes—with presentations of plays that are painfully dated and creaky despite their respected place in drama history. Without naming names, let’s just say there have been an unfortunate number of these on view in the past few years.    

So it’s decidedly hats-off time in salute to the Roundabout Theatre Company and its artistic director, Todd Haimes, who have thus far this season given us two absolutely first-rate revivals at the American Airlines Theatre.

We had thought we had struck a lucky vein of gold this past October with Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, featuring a marvelous cast headed up by Roger Rees under the razor sharp direction of Lindsay Posner.

But as good as that was, it is the current production of Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 masterpiece, Machinal, that raises the ante and exchanges gold for diamonds.

Machinal, which hitherto had not been seen on Broadway since its initial run 85 years ago, is a powerhouse work that takes us inside of the mind of a sadly disturbed young woman accused of committing a cold-blooded murder. 

Sophie Treadwell, a successful playwright and journalist, based the play on an actual incident. But instead of merely recounting the facts, she turned the story into a stunning expressionistic drama about her protagonist, Helen, brilliantly portrayed in this production by British actress Rebecca Hall.

It is quite possible to view Machinal as a cautionary tale about a woman trapped within the very limited options allowed by social norms. Like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Helen has tried to fit into the tightly bound life she feels is her only option—in this case taking care of her mother, holding down a job as a clerk/typist, marrying the boss, and having a child.  But the more she tries to conform, the more anxious and panicky she feels, so that by the time we get to know her, she is the living embodiment of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream.

But Ms. Treadwell is not Ibsen, nor does she seek to be. She is more interested in examining Helen’s psyche than in laying blame on her significant others or Society. Yes, her mother (Suzanne Bertish) is annoying and her husband (Michael Cumpsty) is oblivious, but neither of them is particularly monstrous. Yet Helen is disgusted beyond endurance by both of them, and, as well, she feels no bond whatsoever with her daughter. 

To contemporary eyes, Helen suffers from a range of psychiatric disorders for which there now exist treatments and therapies: clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, attachment disorder.  Unfortunately, she is forced to pull herself through day after day without any support, and the play is at least as much an indictment of the society’s lack of attention to mental illness as it is about the stifling of women. 

For Helen, the only time she finds even a glimmer of relief is when she meets a man (Morgan Spector) in a pick-up bar and has her first and only romantic and sexual fling.  She endows in him her long repressed dreams of her imagined rescuer, though their relationship is short-lived and he moves on. With all hope gone, the act of violence that leads Helen to her fate is pretty much inevitable.  And even as we sympathize with her, we do so with the understanding that her plight has extended to envelop others, including her mother, husband, and child. 

The entire cast of Machinal is excellent, with several of the actors taking on multiple and distinct roles. And Lyndsey Turner’s direction, Es Devlin’s set design, and Jane Cox’s lighting design are truly inspired. Together, they give Helen’s psyche a physical and nightmarish presence. The opening scene hits us smack on by perfectly encapsulating Helen’s emotional state without a word being spoken—the personification of New York anxiety.   

The could turn out to be a banner year for Roundabout, what with the upcoming productions of Cabaret, Violet, and The Real Thing, and the pair of winners at the American Airlines Theater, not to mention the splendid array of works at the Laura Pels, where a revival of David Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize winner Dinner With Friends is about to open.

Kudos to Machinal.  And kudos to Roundabout and to all involved!

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