Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal was in its day a revolutionary piece, a product of early feminism and the expressionist movement of the 1920s. It’s a devilishly tricky show, centering on Helen, a young woman of the ’20s who is driven to near-madness by the mechanical nature of life around her and her loss of freedom in an uncaring world. The Second Stage production of this show, directed by Lila Becker ’12, hit some notes perfectly, but occasionally lacked the vigor that defines great productions.
The show opened strongly, with a choreographed, mechanized-looking overture as the ensemble strode busily about on their way to work, staring straight ahead, locked in their own worlds. They all came together suddenly as they boarded the subway, then finally dispersed into their own, isolated work areas, squares of light in an otherwise dark office. (The lighting design, consistently evocative, was the work of Ross Firestone ’12.)
This choreographed feel was what defined the production, to me—sometimes to its benefit, sometimes its detriment. At times I was fully immersed in the uncaring world that Machinal portrays, but at others I felt that it was simply flat. Helen—who was played here by Lina Breslav ’13, good but not stretched to her full range—is supposed to be almost driven mad by the cruelty of the world she lives in. Helen was certainly mad, and the world was cruel, but perhaps it wasn’t quite cruel enough; for me, the relationship between the world and her madness was unclear. The play’s first scene, for example, is a babble of office chatter with Helen stuck in the middle, but when her explosive, conflicted internal monologue emerged it seemed to come out of nowhere. The portrait I saw wasn’t of a woman driven to murder by the insensitivity of her world; it was of an insane woman living in a world populated by well-meaning but fairly stupid people.
Helen’s husband, George H. Jones (played by Michael Inkles ’12), was a perfect example of this well-meaning foolishness. Inkles’s performance was capable, brash and clearly not aware of what his wife was going through, but I felt almost too much sympathy for him. His insensitivity was sad, but not torturous. In fact, at more than one point he seemed quite willing to comfort Helen, albeit awkwardly and not very well. The difference between blunderingly, insensitively, and cruelly so is vast in performance, and all the more so when the end of the play involves his murder.
That said, there were some expressionist moments that really worked. The sound design by Robyn Wolin ’12 added some excellent atmosphere to the scenes in the form of ambient noise (although off-stage dialogue often sounded artificial and poorly-timed), and one particularly powerful moment was the murmuring voice of the priest who administered Helen’s final rights (Joel Salda ’11) undercutting the entirety of the final dialogue. There were also several excellent individual performances: Breslav and Inkles were both strong, within the strange direction the production took; Dan O’Sullivan ’11 played an excellent, chilling doctor, brusquely ignoring Helen’s post-partum depression; and newcomer Anika Amin ’14 gave a brief but passionate and engaging performance as a young woman considering an abortion. The Lover who sweeps Helen off her feet and gives her a taste of “freedom” (graduate student Jakob Schaeffer) was also a convincing human performance, neither angel nor devil but real, kind but flawed.
“When I did what I did I was free. How is that?” Helen asks immediately before her execution by electric chair. Ultimately, the flaw in the play (the script as much as the production) is that while we see Helen free for a moment with the Lover, it always feels temporary. Her happiness never seems remotely likely to last; whether this is because she is a cog in a vast, grinding machine or simply because she is too crazy to grasp happiness is the question.