There was some cruel irony afoot Jan. 16 at the American Airlines Theatre when Machinal, an 86-year-old work about machines by Sophie Treadwell, broke down a couple of times during its first-ever Broadway revival and came to an unequivocal halt after Scene Four. When the show finally did go on after an impromptu intermission of what seemed like a little more than an hour, it went on as Manual, when 11 stagehands (many recruited from the audience) stepped up to the broken plate and literally helped the regular Roundabout crew move the show from scene to scene. And this is a play with an interminable last mile.
The four-sided turnstile (which Es Devlin ingeniously designed to deliver the scenery for scenes in a smooth, even flow) decided, diva-like, not to budge an inch after the opening scene — a wordless mood-setter in which an ordinary face in the crowd, Our Heroine, is pin-spotted among the shadowy subway figures jostling her.
Lights went up, and an announcement was made over the PA system there would be a slight delay to correct a technical problem. This drew understanding applause from the audience. The turnstile's D.O.A. motor was somehow resuscitated, and we were off again, briefly. This spurt of action carried Our Heroine to the office where she was pursued by her boss and then back home where she tells her mother she's marrying the guy, even though she doesn't love him, to escape grinding poverty.
At this point, with no strength to make it through the wedding-night scene, the motor officially and emphatically conked, and a five-minute break was called over the PA. When that stretched to ten, Roundabout's artistic director — a plainly exasperated Todd Haimes — came on stage to warm and sympathetic applause.
"That's the most depressing reason I've ever had for applause," he noted. "Obviously, we're having technical difficulties that are severe with the turntable. The show, as you probably gathered from the beginning, cannot function without the turntable. We have an entire team of technical people backstage and more coming to work on it, so — rather than torture you with sitting in your seats and staring at nothing — we're opening the bar." That news was met with laughs and ready acceptance.
Showbiz folk never get a chance to stop and smell the flowers, so they welcomed the excuse to schmooze and talk shop. The strict rule of not bringing drinks inside the theatre was observed — "Pu-lease! This is not Rock of Ages!" — so the lobby and foyer were pretty close to the equivalent of subway cars, although some of the knowing elite filtered upstairs to a couple of more spacious Roundabout penthouses.
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