Portrait of The Killer as a Young Woman: Machinal

01/29/2014 4:00 AM |

Photo by Joan Marcus

Roundabout Theatre Company

Sophie Treadwell’s expressionistic drama was widely acclaimed when it first appeared on Broadway in 1928, surely in no small part because the heroine’s lover was played by a pre-Hollywood Clark Gable. Loosely based on the case of Ruth Snyder, a woman who murdered her husband and went to the electric chair, Machinal uses rapid-fire dialogue and several jagged stream-of-consciousness monologues to convey the state of mind of its main character, known as Young Woman. The play was all-but-forgotten for many decades before 1993, when a colorful revival in London starring Fiona Shaw brought it back to prominence. This Roundabout Theatre production (through March 2), with Rebecca Hall in the lead, is the first time the play has been on Broadway since its premiere.

Machinal cries out for an aggressive, grotesque and decidedly avant-garde approach, but the Roundabout doesn’t do avant-garde anything. Instead, the company throws all its money behind a massive revolving set that the audience duly applauds. What takes place on that impressive set, alas, is a well-meaning but colorless interpretation, leading us point-by-point through the heroine’s nerve-wracking office job, her relationship with her dependent mother (Suzanne Bertish), her marriage of convenience to a crass businessman (Michael Cumpsty), and her awakening to sexual love with a lower-class drifter (Morgan Spector), which unleashes her pent-up passion and leads to the murder of her crushingly awful husband.

In the opening scene, a fellow worker says that Hall’s Young Woman isn’t meant to be in an office, and the script indicates that she’s too sensitive for the brutalities of modern life. But Hall takes this suggestion of over-sensitivity entirely too far, quivering in scene after scene and speaking in a high, disconnected voice. This is a very difficult part, one that requires a variety of approach so that the Young Woman doesn’t become monotonous in her despair. Hall falls into the trap of overplaying the girl’s sensitivity, and she has no natural talent for hysteria. She works very hard to put across her almost Beckettian monologues, but all we feel is her effort. Throughout, she holds fast to a limited conception of neurasthenia that leaves her with little to play save for anxiety, which doesn’t have the ring of truth or revelation required.

Beautifully willowy in her 1920s dresses, Hall only connects to her role in the extended scene in which the Young Woman finds happiness with her lover, when the heroine gets to calm down and spread out and feel something besides existential agony. She’s modestly touching in this scene, and capable enough in the others that it’s possible to imagine her scoring in this role in a different production—something at BAM, maybe, without some fancy revolving set.