Condemned—To Broadway: In Machinal, Rebecca Hall Plays a Woman Sent to the Electric Chair

‘There’s a poetry in it that makes you feel like you’re being strangled’

`Machinal.'

‘Machinal.’

The English actress Rebecca Hall has had an eclectic career, both on stage and on screen, one that has carried her from Woody Allen (a Golden Globe nomination for Vicky Cristina Barcelona) to Shakespeare to Iron Man 3.

Why bother with that cartoony blockbuster? “I’ve never done the ‘hurry up and wait’ movie before,” she said in a recent interview. “Even the studio movies I’ve done have been small studio movies, or indie films that we made on a wing and a prayer. I love those, but Iron Man 3 is refreshing in a way, because it’s something out of my realm of experience.”

This month, she’s taking another big step outside her realm of experience. She’s making her Broadway debut—strapped to an electric chair. In Machinal, she plays Ruth Snyder, who in 1928 became the first woman executed at Sing Sing since 1899. It opens Jan. 16 at American Airlines Theatre, four days after the 86th anniversary of Snyder’s execution.

Ms. Snyder’s death was not only front-page news in 1928, it was, unprecedentedly, also the front-page photograph, splashed with unbridled sensationalism across “New York’s Picture Newspaper,” the Daily News.  It sold a million papers that day.

Her lover, who’d assisted her in murdering her heavily insured husband, also went to the chair, but Snyder was the one deemed the photo op. On the day of her execution, photographer Tom Howard ingeniously (and illegally) custom-strapped a miniature plate camera (now in the Smithsonian) to his ankle and got what became known as “the shot of the century.”

It wasn’t long before it became fodder for the theater. Sophie Treadwell, a journalist who had gotten a Pancho Villa exclusive for the New-York Tribune, delivered Machinal to Broadway just nine months after the execution. The sight of Ms. Snyder masked, muzzled and bound to the hot seat—and her final words, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”—underlined to Treadwell the fact that the Snyder backstory had never come out.

It was that story that attracted Ms. Hall to the role. “There’s a certain irony there—a play about a woman who doesn’t have a voice,” she said. “She had been so demonized that nobody really knew who she was or what the events of her life were.”

Neglected by her husband—he insisted on hanging a photo of his late fiancée, Jessie Guishard, in their home and even named his boat after her—Snyder drifted into an affair with a married corset salesman named Judd Gray. On her eighth attempt to kill her husband, she succeeded—and would have gotten away with it, had a detective not found a memo her husband had kept from “J.G,” his fiancée. Asked who “J.G.” was, Snyder asked back what Judd Gray had to do with it, and the jig was up.

Ms. Treadwell’s play, Ms. Hall said, is “an angry response” to the “injustice” of that story having been lost in the sensationalized news coverage. “You can feel it when you read it. There’s a poetry in it that makes you feel like you’re being strangled a lot of the time. It’s very effective and powerful.”

The writing in Machinal is expressionistic. Ms. Snyder is identified merely as “A Young Woman,” her lover as “A Man” (Broadway-debuting in the original 1928 production, Clark Gable manned up to the part commendably) and the louse as “A Husband.” The title is an arcane word for “pertaining to machines,” which is the plight of our “Young Woman,” a stenographer swallowed up by the conventions and mechanics of the times—from typewriters down to electric chairs.

“It really doesn’t feel like something that was written,” said Ms. Hall. “It just feels like a kind of outpouring—some sort of visceral reaction to an event, coming from a totally instinctive place—like, say, the moment Treadwell saw that photo.”

Director Lyndsey Turner, who is Broadway-debuting with Machinal after a string of British successes, brought the play to Ms. Hall’s attention. “She said, ‘Have a read.’ I’d heard of it, of course, but I didn’t know it very well. I certainly never saw it, because it’s rarely done. A real pity, that. It’s a Treadwell travesty that this isn’t consistently hailed as a great American masterpiece.”

Ms. Hall is the daughter of Maria Ewing, the international opera singer, and Sir Peter Hall, the British stage director and founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. When you grow up punning around with Tom Stoppard and having Dame Peggy Ashcroft read you bedtime stories, there’s no way you’ll turn out to be a bank clerk.

Inevitably, she made her professional stage bow as Vivie in Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Strand in London, under Daddy’s attentive direction. “I didn’t think that working with my father straight off the bat was necessarily a good idea. I thought, ‘Actually, he’s got faith in my ability, and he’s offering me a great role. Why wouldn’t I take it?’ I mean, he’s a great director. I’d be stupid not to work with him.’”

It took her a while to come around to the idea that having her father usher her into the spotlight was a smart move. “It was the most frightening thing I’ve ever done but also the best. You go out there and say, ‘There are two ways of approaching it when you come from a background like mine.’ You can either hide in corners and pretend that your relatives aren’t your relatives and say, ‘Look at me for who I am’ and get compared to your relatives anyway, or you can say, ‘Of course, I’m related to these people, and I’m going to say it loudly and proudly, and I still want you to assess whether or not I have anything in my own right.’ That’s what I did. Possibly, that’s slightly more confronting. So I went out there, up against the firing range. If I had been rubbish, that would’ve been that. The door would have shut a lot faster.”

Ms. Hall has come close to a Broadway debut twice before—just a borough away. In 2005, she played Rosalind in her father’s production of As You Like It at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Three years later, she was Hermione in The Winter’s Tale and Varya in The Cherry Orchard in Sam Mendes’ initial tour of the Bridge Project, for which she went around the world from BAM, with Simon Russell Beale and Ethan Hawke.

“That whole Bridge Project was a special experience, and I’ve got very fond memories of doing theater in New York,” she said. “I just don’t know about doing it in Manhattan.”

As politically expedient as it might be for a new girl in town, Ms. Hall flat-out denies published reports that Manhattan is her favorite film. “It’s not true at all,” she insisted. “Why do people always say that? I think somebody wrote it on the Internet once. Manhattan would probably be in my top 10, but Annie Hall would be higher. Double Indemnity would be in there—it’s a masterpiece—and All About Eve.”

Double Indemnity makes a particularly good training film for her present assignment. Its author, James M. Cain, attended the Snyder trial and got another husband-will-out murder triangle out of it, The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Given Ms. Hall’s partiality to Woody Allen films, it’s not surprising she found her way into his Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

“I loved working with Woody,” she said. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I loved the whole experience of being in his world, which it very much is. You might think the Woody Allen world would be very specific. Well, it’s what we all know and love—his eye and his way of looking at life. He’s an artist who just sees things differently.”

As for her performance as Ruth Snyder, like her other parts, it’s about keeping herself challenged. “I don’t see the point of doing a role unless it be that. I love acting, because I get to experience things that I wouldn’t experience otherwise and exhibit behavior that I wouldn’t otherwise know about. If I pick the roles within my comfort zone, I don’t believe that I’m learning anything.”