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'Machinal' review: The machine age is murder

Rebecca Hall and Morgan Spector in Sophie Treadwell's

Rebecca Hall and Morgan Spector in Sophie Treadwell's "Machinal" at American Airlines Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus

Describing "Machinal" as ahead of its time is just the tip of the revelations in Sophie Treadwell's 1928 expressionist stunner. This little-known adventure in psychological, sociological and stylistic boundary-pushing -- not on Broadway in 86 years -- has been given a dazzling, daring revival that feels especially startling in the doggedly conventional environs of the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre.

The lavish yet beautifully stark production reintroduces Treadwell, the pioneering American journalist and criminally forgotten author of more than 40 plays, and introduces to Broadway the provocative British director Lyndsey Turner and gifted, courageous actress Rebecca Hall.

In just 95 minutes, Treadwell takes us into the dehumanizing world of the machine age and into the desperately limited life of a sensitive, ordinary woman. She is called, simply, Young Woman, but her journey -- from secretary to the wife of her overbearing boss and to her execution for his murder -- is anything but generic.

It cannot be easy to play a character so tightly trapped behind society's facade. But Hall -- with a beanpole body like an exclamation point and a face of a thousand worried looks -- brings us deep inside the long, virtuosic bursts of halting half-sentences and tangled mazes of internal monologues.

We first meet her squashed and panicked in a crowded subway car, one of several wordless new scenes that Turner adds as strikingly visual connective tissue between what Treadwell calls her nine tight, far-reaching "episodes." Eighteen first-rate actors, many playing multiple characters, talk in punchy, staccato fragments with a rat-a-tat satirical flair that could have been written by David Mamet.

Although the woman's life is stunting and stifling, Treadwell opens it up so we can eavesdrop on surrounding conversations. At a table in a speak-easy, an older man tries to talk a younger man into coming home with him. At another table, a man talks a woman into having an abortion because "It don't amount to nuttin'."

Michael Cumpsty has an almost touching lack of self-awareness as Husband, whose unbearable bromides contrast violently with the passion of Young Woman's Lover (the charismatic Morgan Spector), a drifter with the freedom she can never have.

All this happens on Es Devlin's extraordinary set -- a rectangle of corrugated, prison-brown rooms on a turntable. Costumes, by Michael Krass, capture the dark, pulpy allure of the era. The lights, by Jane Cox, are almost a separate character, moving shafts that seem to have escaped from the bottom of the window shade that, remarkably, keeps Treadwell's doomed Everywoman from unattainable freedom.
WHAT "Machinal"

WHERE American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.

INFO $52-$127; 212-719- 1300;

BOTTOM LINE Revelatory revival

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