Recently gaining renewed popularity in theater houses nationwide, Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal” has also returned to Broadway this season thanks to Roundabout Theatre Company. Though written to reflect the true story of murderess Ruth Snyder in 1927, the play is also timeless in the sense that it portrays an everywoman who loses her voice, and perhaps her sanity, in a life seemingly devoid of free will.
Rebecca Hall (“Iron Man 3”) plays Young Woman, an eccentric but unspectacular 20-something who feels obligated to marry her chauvinistic boss (Michael Cumpsty) in order to support her elderly mother (Suzanne Bertish). But it’s not so much the captivity as the taste of liberation that, once gone, ultimately drives her to bludgeon her husband to death. It’s only when she takes a lover (Morgan Spector), in an uncharacteristic bout of passion, that her resignation becomes desperation. (Today, she would probably face psychotropic meds rather than the electric chair, but that’s history for you.)
Hall’s acting is perfectly decent, but she nonetheless may have been miscast. Despite posturing meekness and “purity,” there’s something about the star’s worldliness — not to mention her 5-foot-9 frame — that makes the character’s submissiveness suspect even without seeing her go off the rails (literally, fighting her way off a crowded subway car because she can’t breathe). We tried to see past our size bias — she’s our height, in fact — but did the costumers really have to put her in heels, as well?
Speaking of costumes, the swift changes between scenes are impressive — especially because they transpire in the nooks and crannies of an elevated, rotating box set. The slivers of light in shaky darkness during these transitions lend mood to the story, as well. And we do have to note the quality of accents in this work. Although Ashley Bell’s is (characteristically) comical — as the flirty, feminine counterpoint to Hall’s somber separatist — the rest of the cast members, largely of British heritage, succeed in their flapper-era Americanisms (“Hot dog!”).
In fact, it’s clear director Lyndsey Turner put lot of work into all the little details of “Machinal,” with the right mix of star power and media momentum, and we wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an extension or two in the show’s future.
If you go
Through March 2
American Airlines Theatre,
227 W. 42nd St.