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It was the sensation of 1927. She was Ruth Snyder, married to a man she despised. He was Judd Gray, her lover. Together they murdered her husband, were tried, found guilty and executed in Sing Sing’s electric chair. “Dead” screamed the Daily News front page, accompanied by a photo of Snyder as jolts convulsed her body. It was not a pretty sight.

A year later, Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal” was produced. Now in its first revival in 86 years, the expressionistic play based on the Snyder-Gray affair is at the Roundabout in a powerful, even frightening production.

Purposely cold and impersonal is the world of “Machinal,” a Jazz Age tale of alcohol, sex and murder set in a mechanized world. Snyder, here called the generic “Young Woman,” is, unlike Lear, hardly the noble figure required for tragedy. But she is to be pitied. Married to a schnook who treats her like his possession, and under the thumb of a nudging mother, it’s a matter of time before she breaks her bonds.

The Snyder-Gray scandal inspired not only “Machinal” but, notably, James M. Cain’s great noir melodramas, “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Treadwell, like Cain, writes of feminine frustration.

“Machinal” creates a world where what counts is “eating, sleeping, getting old, dying.” That’s not a world that the Young Woman craves. “I’ll not submit,” she says, defying the husband she hates and the society that keeps her fettered.

As directed with a sure feel for theatricality by Lyndsey Turner, characters talk in a stilted manner, none more so than the excellent Michael Cumpsty as Husband. As the Young Woman, Roberta Hall grows in stature, her crooked smile forgotten, her eyes losing their terror, her nonconformity a badge. Only when she’s with the Lover (a seductive Morgan Spector), can she be open and free.

The design elements are impeccable, especially Es Devlin’s turntable sets, which whirl us through nine scenes that mirror Dante’s nine circles in “The Inferno.” When the Young Woman tells the Priest who has come to comfort her, “Life has been hell for me, Father,” the circle is shut. In a hostile society, she can only rage against the dying of the light.

--David A. Rosenberg
Jan. 31, 2014

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