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By: Eugene Paul

Rebecca Hall and Morgan Spector
in a scene from Machinal
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

If you look up “Machinal” in English dictionaries, you’ll find definitions centering on its reference to machines. The French do it better: they liken “Machinal” to one’s life becoming machine like. Rebecca Hall, lovely scion of British theatre in general and of distinguished Sir Peter Hall in particular, stars in the outstanding Roundabout Theatre Company production of this first revival since the play’s opening in New York in 1928 when Sophie Treadwell’s expressionistic drama first caught fire but no revival has had the central character, the Young Woman, so dazzlingly embodied. Actually, it’s a clash.

The central character, the Young Woman, is supposed to be ordinary, an underlying emphasis of the Treadwell play which becomes impossible from the very first opening scene thrillingly staged right off the bat by hot new British director Lyndsey Turner. (Cannot forget her production of Posh.) In a proscenium crammed with drab strap hangers, hanging on authentic straps clear across the stage, tall Hall, exquisite, spotlighted, struggles to exit the subway car, already late to her job. In the next scene swiftly swinging into place by set designer Es Devlin’s marvelously fluid stage apparatus, everybody in her office robotically hard at work, mechanisms making Business. No one in our program is identified by name: each is a type, Clerk, Telephone Operator, Mother, Husband, Man in Bar, First Reporter, Lover, over forty characters enacted by our cast of eighteen, the Young Woman, Rebecca Hall, in every scene.

We’re strangely apprehensive about her, with her, for her. We know playwright Treadwell is hammering a point: this girl cannot stand the squirrel cage of a life she is in - get up, go to work, turn over pay to mother for rent, for food, go to bed, get up, go to work, turn over pay. Again and again. She’s got to get out, even if the only way seems to be to marry that horrible stuffed shirt, her boss (Michael Cumpsty) who can’t keep his hands off her. (Cumpsty is so good you look forward to more of his awfulness and you get it.) Her Mother (splendid Suzanne Bertish) nags her to marry this wonderful man and thus take care of the two of them. Of course, the girl has to marry him. Of course, she’s in another prison. And when they make a baby, the walls close in. With fiendish skill, director Turner stages the mechanical goings on of a hospital and the inviolable dominance of the male doctors. Suddenly the girl looks like the person depicted in Klimt’s “Scream.”

Jason Loughlin, Rebecca Hall and Ryan Dinning
in a scene from Machinal
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

But in a following scene, she’s in a bar drinking, and picked up by a hunky lover (Morgan Spector). That leads to them in bed. She’s free in an addled sort of way but he’s freer; he’s going back to Mexico where you’re really free. If you’re a man.

And she’s back in her chains, the chains of matrimony, the chains of motherhood, the chains of being subject to mother and husband. The play has changed. It is no longer the general rat race, it’s personal, personal choice, personal freedom. How can you have your freedom and live in this world?

Which might make a far more poignant experience for us if the girl were just an ordinary girl, even a pretty, ordinary girl. But Rebecca Hall is far and away a creature of grace and acculturation as well as beauty, unmissable wherever she might find herself. And Michael Krass’ period costumes, so successful for his large company, simply enhance every line, every gesture of Ms. Hall no matter how frantically ordinary she tries to be. Putting stockings on those mile long legs becomes a work of art. She can’t help it.

Therefore it is not a spoiler to tell you that this lovely, desirable creature becomes even lovelier as she is put on trial for the murder of her husband, nor do you bother to doubt the clumsy devices the playwright engineers to convict her. You cannot believe that you are going to see this bewitching being end up in the electric chair. And when that happens after a long, doleful, dour march, are you outraged? Even though she confessed? Are you infuriated? No, this path was laid from the beginning. Well, then, at least, are you upset? Yes, you can be upset but you’ll applaud a large, beautifully staged company in an unstintingly fine production with a stunner of a central star. It’s a theatrical feast, with just a little colic in the offing, but then, you don’t get either one every day.

Machinal (through March 2, 2014)
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission