Enthralled as we are to our digital gadgetry, you’d think we’d identify with the heroine of “Machinal,” Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 Expressionistic melodrama (inspired by the infamous Ruth Snyder case) about a woman driven to murder trying to escape her fate in a mechanized society. 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.
Under Turner’s masterful staging, the opening scenes provide a bone-chilling perspective on the life of the unnamed Young Woman played with emotional delicacy by Hall. Working within the Expressionist theatrical style popular in Europe in Treadwell’s day, the director and her crack design team conjure up nightmarish images of a modern world as it’s experienced by a neurasthenic woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Headed for work on a New York subway train in 1922, the Woman cringes from the stiflingly close body contact with the strangers who press in all around her. In Jane Cox’s painterly lighting design, Hall’s pale face peers out in stark contrast with her fellow travelers, expressionless automatons identically dressed (according to the austere design of Michael Krass) in muddy colors and silently moving in robotic lockstep.
That unnerving image is replaced by another disturbing tableau when Es Devlin’s hugely impressive revolving set takes a dramatic turn and abruptly deposits the Woman in her office.
Matthew Herbert’s sober original music and Matt Tierney’s oppressive sound design dominate the storytelling here, assaulting the Woman’s ears with a maddening cacophony of clattering typewriters, jangling telephones and slamming file drawers. The anonymous staff in this unnamed business (played by first-rate ensemble members who do double and triple duty as the story develops) are dressed in the same drab tones as those silent robots in the subway, but here they have found their voices.
The Young Woman doesn’t find her own voice until the set takes another ominous turn and returns her to the tenement apartment she shares with her Mother, a nagging shrew in Suzanne Bertish’s pitiless portrayal. But when she struggles to articulate her discontentment with life and her yearning for love — the only moment in this severely stylized play when she seems remotely human — the old woman calls her “crazy.”
Which is why the next turn of that revolving set finds the Woman married to a Husband she loathes, in Michael Cumpsty’s perfect portrayal, the very model of the rich, powerful, self-satisfied male animal much admired in that era. That blinding naiveté also explains why another set revolve finds the Woman in bed with a good-looking Lover (the likable Morgan Spector) whose gentle lovemaking she confuses with true love.
But it isn’t until the final scenes of the play, when the Woman is convicted of homicide and solemnly escorted to the electric chair for killing her husband, that the playwright (or, more accurately, the director) succeeds in conveying the horror of her situation. For unlike Mr. Zero in Elmer Rice’s “The Adding Machin” or the little tramp in Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” this affectless Woman is too passive and dull-witted to become the Everywoman victim of the first industrial age of automation.
But since we’re currently living through the second industrial age of automation, there’s still time for other playwrights to come up with more authentic victims.