By Michael Phillips
In her journalist days, Sophie Treadwell interviewed Pancho Villa in Mexico when no one else was interviewing Pancho Villa in Mexico. She hung out in New York with everyone from actress Katherine Cornell to artiste Marcel Duchamp. She covered murder on a grand scale (World War I) and murder on the domestic scale, notably the 1927 Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray trial in which a Queens homemaker and her corset-salesman lover were executed for killing Snyder’s husband.
The following year Treadwell wrote Machinal. No straightforward account of the trial, the play was instead a kind of theatrical X-ray, revealing the bones beneath the damp skin of all the Snyder newspaper accounts. In Treadwell’s play — not her first, but still her best-known — the machine is society; the victim, a woman, has no recourse other than to submit to its patriarchal will.
Now at Chicago Dramatists, the Hypocrites gang has ushered in the year with an intriguing revival.
Mechelle Moe plays Helen, the ill-fated stenographer. She looks like a D.W. Griffith orphan who has endured her share of storms. Treadwell’s protagonist lives in a cramped apartment with a harridan of a mother (Shawn Yardley). Helen marries her Babbitt of a boss (Kurt Ehrmann, especially good in high-panic mode) but it’s an airless existence. She finds solace in an affair with an adventurer (Ryan Bollettino, in a role originated on Broadway by Clark Gable). Helen kills her husband; she goes to court; in the final moments, a literal machine, an electric chair, does her in while a priest mutters words of Christian comfort.
Treadwell drew on the theatrical language of Expressionism and a visual vocabulary inspired by the movies. (King Vidor’s The Crowd, which also came out in 1928, managed to capture in a single shot — the swoop over the endless rows and rows of corporate drones at their desks — what many a ’20s playwright struggled to convey in an entire work.) Machinal was, and is, a savvy feminist critique of the Jazz Age itself, which may have been all about liquor and ha-cha, but left an awful lot of people stuck between two worlds: Victorian morality and paradoxical Prohibition-era freedom.
The Hypocrites rendition, oddly, is most effective when most real. The key scene between Moe and Bollettino, a morning-after bedroom conversation, works wonderfully well. The physical production features video projections depicting black-and-white shots of waves, and lab mice under duress, backed by a taped keyboard score atop which we hear a live cello. The music, alas, is more narcotic than mesmeric.
The best performances compensate. Moe’s minimalist approach pays off when she suddenly changes gears in a surprising late scene with Ehrmann, suffering what can only be called a full-on Expressionist attack: She chokes, while we hear a piercing high-pitched electronic eeeeeeeeeeeee and the stage goes red. It’s director Sean Graney’s best-realized flourish. As a filing clerk John Byrnes, fast and funny, does wonders with the catch-phrase hot dog!
Looking back at 1920s Broadway, it’s remarkable that everyone from Elmer Rice (The Adding Machine) to Eugene O’Neill (The Hairy Ape) to Sophie Treadwell were trafficking in such exotic theatrical styles. Manhattan was full of theater-goers who were also hot for this new thing called psychoanalysis, and a play like Machinal — to read it as superficially as possible — explained one woman’s behavior by illustrating the deck stacked against her happiness.
It ran only 91 performances, and it fell out of circulation for decades. But Machinal remains a key Jazz Age artifact. The Hypocrites’ staging, however uneven, helps explain why some artifacts stay buried, while others live on.