When Machinal premiered in 1928, it must have been very daring: a highly stylized, nonrealistic dramatization of very real headline-making events. (The trial, conviction, and electric-chair execution of New York housewife/mother Ruth Snyder inspired Sophie Treadwell's Expressionist play.) And even 86 years later, Machinal now receiving a beautifully well-appointed Broadway revival starring the superb Rebecca Hall and an even-more-superb rotating set is still a bit bold: an unsettling journey inside the mundane marriage and troubled mind of a young woman (Hall) who murders her straitlaced husband (Michael Cumpsty, typecast again as the stuffiest guy in the room).
Unfortunately, Machinal isn’t consistently intriguing or the tiniest bit emotionally involving. Aesthetically, it’s quite an achievement. Director Lyndsey Turner, with the ample assistance of scenic designer Es Devlin and choreographer Sam Pinkleton, paints incredible onstage portraits of a packed subway car, an overcrowded office, a bustling maternity ward, and a seedy speakeasy, to name a few. Watch the background and supporting players: Every movement is calculated (and, I suspect, measured to the inch and timed to the second) to underscore the clipped dialogue and mile-a-minute monologues. But an intentionally repetitive rat-a-tat office scene or deliberately overdramatic argument about potatoes yes, that actually happens grows tiresome very quickly, no matter how prettily staged. (To be fair, in the exchange about spuds, Hall isn’t helped by Suzanne Bertish, who plays her mother with a frustrating one-note bray.)
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. B–
(Tickets: RoundaboutTheatre.org or 212-719-1300)