Welcome to the Machine: Machinal Is a Haunting Portrait of Life for Women in the Twenties

And Frank Langella is masterful in a dutiful 'Lear'

Frank Langella in 'King Lear.' (Photo by Johan Persson)

Frank Langella in ‘King Lear.’ (Photo by Johan Persson)

Ruth Snyder, whom Wikipedia pithily if reductively identifies as “an American murderess,” was electrocuted by the State of New York at Sing Sing Prison on Jan. 12, 1928. You’ve seen the photo of her final moment: It’s the muddy shot secretly captured by a camera strapped to the ankle of a Chicago Tribune photographer and plastered the next morning on the cover of the Daily News. She was the first woman executed at Sing Sing in three decades. She’d been convicted and sentenced for conspiring with her lover to murder her husband, an older sad sack with whom she’d had one daughter and a loveless marriage.

Sophie Treadwell was a reporter who specialized in that kind of splashy Jazz Age journalism. She was also a playwright. By September 1928, eight months after Ms. Snyder’s execution, Ms. Treadwell’s Machinal was open on Broadway. Inspired by Ms. Snyder’s story, but not strictly based on it, Machinal, remarkably and contrary to the prevailing narrative about “Ruthless Ruth,” as the tabloids dubbed her, comes down very much on the side of Helen, the play’s Ruth-like protagonist. The title comes from the French, in which it means “mechanical” or “automatic,” and the play portrays Helen struggling against the automatic expectations for a woman in her era: that she submit to her boss at work, that she marry a man she doesn’t love, that she raise a child she didn’t much want, that she accept the sentence meted out to her. Helen wants to be free, she keeps saying; only by being killed does she gain freedom.

It’s a dark, dark look at life for women in the 1920s, and it’s a play that packs a wallop, even 85 years later. It opened last week in its first-ever Broadway revival at the American Airlines Theatre, and the Roundabout Theatre Company production is haunting—the best the company has mounted in that space in several years. Starring the British actress Rebecca Hall as Helen, the would-be murderess, and gorgeously directed by Lyndsey Turner, it’s a triumph of Expressionist coherence. Ms. Hall’s flat, mechanical affect combines with Ms. Treadwell’s rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, Es Devlin’s slick, rotating Deco set and Jane Cox’s film-noir lighting to make everything in Machinal a big-city, male-dominated machine grinding Helen through its gears.

The first scene sets the tone, a collection of commuters bouncing along on a dimly lit subway ride to work, the train’s clicks and rumbles the first intimation of the mechanisms at work. It’s a memorable image, the ominous flip side of The Music Man’s cheerily locomotive opening number. The machine of a set rotates from the train to the office, where phones are ringing, the adding machine is grinding and everyone’s referred to by initials: Miss A., Mr. J., Mr. K., Matter Q, all so many cogs. Helen is late, because she had to get out of the crowded train, get some air—from this first moment, hungering for a little freedom.

But there’ll be no freedom—the boss fancies her, and, as her coworkers point out in their mechanized, syncopated chirping, if she says “no,” she’ll lose her job, and if she says “yes,” she’ll come to work in a taxi. At home, she says just that to her mother: “All women get married, don’t they?” She’s got that mother to support and needs clothes on her back and a roof over her head, and what does it matter if she loves him? Didn’t Ma love Pa? “I suppose I did,” says Ma (Suzanne Bertish). “I don’t know. I’ve forgotten. What difference does it make now?”

But it does matter. Mr. J. (Michael Cumpsty) is a blowhard, speaking only in clichés. Helen marries him, but she can’t stand him, can’t bear to touch him. The honeymoon night doesn’t go well. “I’m your husband,” he says, a few times. “You aren’t afraid of your husband, are you?” But she submits, as she must. And she submits to motherhood, where the maternity nurse tells her what she’s feeling and the male doctor ignores the nurse and machines outside keep building a new wing to the hospital. “Let me alone,” Helen says, over and over, with nobody listening. “I’ll not submit. I’ll not submit.”

When she meets a handsome stranger (Morgan Spector) at a speakeasy, you can understand why she sees him as a chance to escape her stultifying life. They go back to his room, and as she’s tidying up to leave, it becomes obvious she’s much more into him than he is to her. (This is when you remind yourself that the play is from 1928; we cringe at Helen misplaying the post-hookup game, but then maybe the rules were different in a time before direct-dial telephony, let alone smartphone apps?) Emboldened, she murders her husband to run away with her lover; the lover gives her up, and soon enough she’s back in the machine, in jail, in court, finally in the chair—where, all throughout, again, no one listens to her.

It’s an arresting production with a compelling lead performance, but really the most intriguing thing is to wonder about the play’s author. Machinal feels modern, fresh and like a very feminist-era take on the roles of and demands upon early-20th-century women. And yet the play was written only eight years after the Nineteenth Amendment. Betty Friedan was still in grade school. But Ms. Treadwell somehow came up with this unconventional, almost shocking work.

It ends, as it must, with Helen in the chair. As she’s strapped in, she adjusts her Marcel waves under the helmet. “Look at that,” a spectator, male of course, cries out. “She fixed her hair under the cap.” The men always have the last word, and it’s always critical.

Unless, that is, the man makes the mistake of giving up his kingdom to his daughters.

This is, of course, the plight of Lear, who in the first scene of Shakespeare’s great tragedy divides his land among the daughters who profess to love him most and then spends the next several hours going mad as they grow increasingly dismissive of him. Frank Langella, who knows something about deranged rulers having raged magisterially in Frost/Nixon both on Broadway and on film, is playing the aging king in a new production of King Lear that arrived last week at BAM, and he gives a masterful performance: sometimes commanding, sometimes lost, always regal.

This Lear comes from the Chichester Festival Theatre, where Mr. Langella’s performance won raves from the English critics. It’s easy to see why. There are also several coups in Angus Jackson’s direction, most notably when Lear is alone with the Fool on a heath in a storm, after his daughters have stripped him of his retinue. Mr. Langella is looking upstage, lit from behind in a sad blue light, water pouring down from overhead. The actor rages, the moment is beautiful. So, too, is the final, unseen battle between British and French forces, when orange light rises, along with smoke and the sounds of war, as Gloucester (Denis Conway) sits on stage, despairing.

And still, for its beauty, this Lear also feels somewhat dutiful. In the last production I saw, with Sam Waterston in the title role at the Public, the king’s age, decrepitude and descent into madness felt viscerally, actively real. Here, despite Mr. Langella’s excellence, I was struck mostly by the scheming, evil ingratitude of his daughters, Goneril (Catherine McCormack) and Regan (Lauren O’Neil, throaty and Lily Rabian). They, not their father, seemed the prime architects of his downfall. Lear was just stuck in the machine, undone by women.