Review Roundup: ‘Machinal’

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Machinal, by journalist-playwright Sophie Treadwell, opened on Jan. 16 at the American Airlines Theater, in its first Broadway production since it opened in 1928. The play is inspired by the real-life story of Ruth Snyder, a Long Island housewife who murdered her husband and became the first woman to be executed in the electric chair. Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona, Iron Man 3) makes her Broadway debut as a young stenographer forced into a loveless marriage by economic and social pressures. British director Lyndsey Turner also makes her New York debut with her innovative staging. The cast also includes Michael Cumpsty (The Winslow Boy), Morgan Spector (Russian Transport), and Suzanne Bertish (Wit, Breakfast at Tiffany’s). What did the critics think of this rarely-revived show? Here are excerpts from the major reviewers.

Machinal on Broadway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Ashley Bell, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Spector and Damian Baldet in ‘Machinal’ on Broadway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

 

Ben Brantley, The New York Times
“A desperate life blazes amid devouring shadows in the Roundabout Theater Company’s intensely stylish revival of Machinal, Sophie Treadwell’s fascinating play from 1928 about one woman’s captivity in a hell called New York City. That life is embodied by the charismatic British stage and film star Rebecca Hall, in her Broadway debut so you can bet that it’s going to burn bright.”

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News
“Treadwell’s play is stylish but slight. It does, however, provide compelling evidence for the gifts of British director Lyndsey Turner, whose New York debut demands you sit bolt upright and take notice. To create the mood of a woman trapped, Turner and her ace design team place her inside a rotating box that morphs with each scene. Purring with sleekly elegant beauty, the physical staging is the star here.”

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post
“One of the most thrilling shows on Broadway is about a woman who kills her husband in cold blood. That would pack in the tourists . . . if we were talking about Chicago. Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal isn’t a sexy musical but an obscure drama—one that hadn’t been revived on Broadway since its 1928 premiere. It’s written in a modernist prose style, which is quite abstract, at times even experimental. All told, it’s a tough sell, but director Lyndsey Turner and her star, Rebecca Hall—Scarlett Johansson’s reasonable friend in Vicky Cristina Barcelona— have made it a must-see.”

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press
Machinal is by no means perfect or smooth. There’s a court scene that seems a jarring change from the mood of the rest, and it’s peopled by flat characters spouting gibberish. Not for everyone, it’s a moody, jarring meditation on the modern world that’s a critique of capitalism, mechanization and male-dominated power. For 86, it looks pretty, weirdly good.”

David Cote, Time Out New York
“Rebecca Hall’s neurotic, trapped Everywoman is neither passive victim of society nor romantic sociopath; we can ascribe her fate to pre-Zoloft, prefeminist limited options, but Treadwell is too probing—and unsentimental—to stay on the soapbox. Everyone in this world is a cog, some are just more aware of it. Treadwell’s characters are not meant to be well-rounded or psychologically shaded; they are social types in a dark allegory. And the actors, under Turner’s pitch-perfect guidance, rise to the challenge of playing sharp-etched grotesques.”

 Linda Winer, Newsday
“All this happens on Es Devlin’s extraordinary set–a rectangle of corrugated, prison-brown rooms on a turntable. Costumes, by Michael Krass, capture the dark, pulpy allure of the era. The lights, by Jane Cox, are almost a separate character, moving shafts that seem to have escaped from the bottom of the window shade that, remarkably, keeps Treadwell’s doomed Everywoman from unattainable freedom.”

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter
“Even at 95 minutes, the play becomes somewhat punishing, though the staging of Helen’s ‘dead woman walking’ procession through the various chambers and corridors of Devlin’s spinning set is transfixing in its funereal horror. The production’s attention to movement throughout is fascinating, finding physical menace in dancing couples or busy hospital workers or jostling subway passengers, their faces masked by newspapers.”

Marilyn Stasio, Variety
“Helmer Lyndsey Turner’s stunning production creates an appropriately bleak environment for this dark drama, and Rebecca Hall (a member of British theatrical royalty better known for her movie work) makes a compelling case for this fragile creature.  But it’s tough to empathize with someone who lacks a backbone and hasn’t a brain in her head.”

Melissa Rose Bernardo, Entertainment Weekly
“Hall, a British actress who’s making her Broadway debut, is spectacular in a near-impossible role. She maintains an astonishing deadness in her eyes throughout the entire evening, save one scene: when she’s with her lover (Morgan Spector). Then they light up like firecrackers. That’s also the most loosely structured, conventional exchange in Machinal, and the whiplash-inducing return to her character’s unreal world is exasperatingly unfulfilling.”

Matt Windman, AM New York
“Lyndsey Turner’s extraordinary production makes for an absolutely stirring 90 minutes of theater. It powerfully captures the play’s heightened theatricality and terrifying aura, utilizing a sleek, box-shaped set that swiftly rotates back and forth to reveal new scenes. The cast is unusually large, allowing the depiction of a stifling, uncaring crowd of strangers inducing claustrophobia.”

Steve Suskin, Huffington Post
“It is also arguably the most striking offering Roundabout has given us since the fabled Natasha Richardson/Liam Neeson Anna Christie back in 1993. Make no mistake, this is a riveting production of a monumental if seriously overlooked play.”

 

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