Woman is trapped in loveless marriage. Woman feels suffocated by life. Woman goes mad and kills husband. Woman is put on trial. Woman is sentenced to death. It’s a pretty straightforward plot, one that’s inspired by the real-life murder committed by Ruth Snyder in 1927. However, Insurgo Theater’s Machinal makes it all convoluted.
The failure of this production starts with the script from the late journalist/playwright/actress Sophie Treadwell. Considered “the height of American Expressionist theatre” according to the program, it’s mundane, obvious and flat-out … well … flat. Case in point, when main character Helen (Sarah Spraker) is fighting with her mother, the latter opines, “I brought you into this world.” How much more on-the-nose could the dialogue be?
It doesn’t help that this version, directed by Stacia Zinkevich, is almost entirely miscast. Everyone speaks with an American dialect except for Helen. It takes you right out of the show. Why does the central player have a British accent? Her mother, played as a one-note nag by Terri Gandy, is American. The play takes place in New York. Yet the only actor who attempts (and succeeds) with the East Coast style is Jamie Carvelli as Telephone Girl.
Most of the performances are big, and not in a good way. Tyler Collinsworth plays a doctor, a boyfriend of the Telephone Girl and a prosecutor, each louder and less subtle than the last. The lawyer character is personified as a Southern hotshot. Does he think he’s in Inherit the Wind? How did this Southerner come to prosecute in the state of New York? Was this Southern twang the actor’s or director’s choice? Either way, it’s an incredibly bad decision.
There are some technical high points to the show. TJ Larsen’s set, featuring a series of rectangular boxes that move fluidly as the locations change, work like he’s a wizard at Tetris. Lee Myers’ costumes, for the most part, evoking a sort of Mad Men-lite feel, are successful. The sound and music helmed by Jeremy V. Gill set the mood and tone nicely, if sometimes overwrought.
However, in the end, it all comes back to the script. When Helen sits in a bar with her soon-to-be lover Richard (Geo Nikols), he begins to tell the tale of how he escaped from imprisonment by Mexican bandidos. This is by far the most interesting story in the play, but instead of getting to hear it in full; we’re forced to listen to conversations at two other tables at the speakeasy. First an old gay man tries to pick up a younger, confused man by telling him all about and making him drink Amontillado, then some guy tries to convince his girlfriend to get an abortion. Who are these characters and why do we care about them? Perhaps this was valuable commentary back when the play premiered in 1928. Now it’s just stale, much like this show itself.