Roundabout Theater's production of Sophie Treadwell's 1928 play Machinal has gotten such amazing reviews, I could not miss this one, and I'm glad I didn't. Rebecca Hall's performance as Young Woman is stunning.
From the moment the play begins, the audience is mesmerized. The stage is a huge rotating rectangle, and we see people crowded on a subway car, and those of us who live in NYC could viscerally feel the agony of our main character, called Young Woman, (aka Helen Jones). People are crushed up against each other, and Helen's discomfort grows to panic as she races to get off the car before her stop.
Then the stage rotates and we see an office with workers who represent the growing mechanization of the labor force. Helen is late for work (as usual), and her boss wants to see her, as he wishes to marry her, something she does not want to do.
The next setting is Helen and her mother's tenement apartment, where Helen is torn between continuing to live with and support her harridan of a mother or marrying a man she cannot abide. Helen has to choose a life where she really has no choice.
Helen is traumatized by childbirth, feeling that she is slipping farther away from herself. You can almost feel her about to shatter. When she meets a man she is attracted to, she feels alive for the first time, but that comes at a price.
The final scene set in a prison, where Helen is walking from her cell to her execution (the play is loosely based on the Ruth Snyder case, which also inspired the book and movie, The Postman Always Rings Twice) is just visually incredible. The staging in this show is an important character in this play as Helen, and set designer Es Devlin deserves every award imaginable.
This play is not for everyone. It is described as experimental, and the way Treadwell uses the staccato, repetitive language to emphasize the mechanization and repetition of the industrial complex did not work for some of the people in attendance.
However, I found Machinal to be not just a historical piece, because Helen's feelings of being caught between a rock and hard place, having few good choices, is something many women may relate to. Go see it for Rebecca Hall's amazing performance, one of the best of the year.
The play closes on March 2nd at the American Airlines Theatre. For more information, click here.