PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Machinal—A Showstopper: The Set
By Harry Haun
Playbill.com offers a behind-the-scenes look at opening night of the first Broadway revival of Machinal, starring Rebecca Hall in her Broadway debut.
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.
Bill Heck, sporting his dashing out-of-work beard which he'll soon shave to do the Cabaret revival (his first musical since high school), came up with the most mystical explanation for the malfunction: "Well, Spider-Man left town, and the juju had to go somewhere. It just went next door."
When the all-clear was finally sounded to return to your seats, Julie Taymor was not in that number, opting like others for a more stress-free environment. But a healthy portion of the house did come back, anxious to see how this historic night would play out. In their seats at 8:38 (as they were at 7:08 when the play initially began), patrons saw that the play was set up to start all over, from the opening subway set on. Coming out on stage to greet them was a young British woman.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Lyndsey Turner. I'm the director of Machinal," she said, triggering a houseful of supportive applause and cheers. "I'm sure you can tell from my accent that I'm not from here, and right now I feel like I'm a long, long way from home. Thank you so much for your patience and for the support you've given us already this evening. As you've probably discerned, Es Devlin's extraordinary design for this play is entirely dependent on the functionality of a single motor that's chosen tonight to completely betray us. After three weeks of previews, it's given up the ghost right here, right now, dying in some way, and, without that motor, we feared that we wouldn't be able to deliver you this play, as it has been conceived by and worked on by all of us. But it occurs to me that Sophie Treadwell's waited 83 years [actually, 86] to get back on Broadway, and all at Roundabout — myself included and our wonderful, wonderful cast — are quite frankly f*cked if that's going to happen on our watch.
"So, ladies and gentlemen, we're going back to the oldest trick in the book — muscle. We have 11 volunteers who have kindly agreed to push this bastard with the sweats of their brow. I don't know what that's going to do in terms of technical implications. This is somewhat uncharted waters for us, so please be patient if the sound cues aren't quite precise or if the lighting doesn't do what we were hoping to do.
"And here's where I need to crave your indulgence: For the good of the play, which is cumulative in its effect, for the good of the company, for the good of all of the work we've done, we want to start again." (The "yeahs!" were deafening here.) Thank you so much. It's just that we've worked so long... to try and achieve something that does credit to Sophie Treadwell, and that's exactly what we're going to do. It's a brilliant play. These are brilliant, brilliant actors, and what we're hoping is that the power of the performances and the storytelling and just the humanity and the fact that you might be a bit drunk now, we'll deliver this remarkable, remarkable piece of writing to you, so could you join me in welcoming back the company of Machinal."
Tale Two! A doggedly determined push to the finish line went off without any serious hitch. The first few push-to-shove changes of scenes got applause until the Treadwell spell gradually took over and the audience was pulled into the play. There were stagehand sightings from time to time — every time putting forth the maximum Victor Mature-at-the-temple-pillars effort — but most of them were invisible. The volunteers had never seen the play and had to be coaxed by the regulars on what to do.
After the longest mile in cumulative human endurance, the play was over. The cast came forth to take their bows, then the star, and then the never-seen stagehands who made it happen — the heroes of the evening — came out to a thunderous reception. Too bad the confetti stores were closed. It was a great night of theatre.
Being strapped to an electric chair does seem a strange way for British theatre royalty to meet Broadway, but this is how Rebecca Hall chose to make her first big Main Stem Move, playing the first woman in the 20th century to be executed at Sing Sing.
The daughter of international opera singer Maria Ewing and Sir Peter Hall, the British stage director who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company, is creating some fame on her own these days the hard way — not just in this difficult opening night but in choosing to make her Broadway bow as the Queens housewife who killed her husband for his insurance and went to the chair 86 years ago this week.
One of the most famous tabloid photos of all time, taken at the moment of her death and plastered across the front page of the New York Daily News, immortalized Ruth Snyder. It was taken by Jason Sudakis' great-grandfather, Tom Howard, a Chicago Tribune photographer hired by The News. He got that notorious, and quite illegal, shot with a miniature camera strapped to his left ankle and a shutter button in his jacket. His camera now has a place at the Smithsonian, and Snyder rests ignominiously in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, under her maiden name, Brown.
That grim front-page visage of "Ruthless Ruthie," as the tabloids called her, bound, gagged and blindfold for execution — and her last words on earth: "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing" — drove Treadwell to do Machinal, and she had it on Broadway less than nine months later. Writing in the then-popular Expressionist mode of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Age and Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, she identified Snyder as Young Woman in the cast of characters and as Helen Jones under oath at her trial — a cog in the mechanical wheel of her times.
Matt Tierney's sound design is practically a play-through of modern noises — subway, switchboard, adding machine, typewriter, cameras and electric chair.
"I think I like best about is her ordinariness, if that's a word," said Hall, who's anything but ordinary up close and in person after the show. All hail Paul Huntley's hair and wig design and Michael Krass' costume design for making the ridiculously ravishing dowdy.)
"She's not particular heroic or extraordinary in any way. She's an Everywoman, and the play sorta happens to her, in a way. It's defining someone who has — not naiveté as such as much as a kind of optimism about the world. When that gets blown apart by circumstances, she makes a very violent act of rebellion against it."
Hall inhabits a shadowy, depressing universe, beautifully conveyed in Jane Cox's lighting design — and she gives full credit for the ambience to the person who deserves it.
"Lindsey Turner is an extraordinary director, and I've got to say in her favor there's a lot of direction, but there's not a piece of direction or a piece of production that does not serve the truth of the play. That has always been her M.O. from the beginning, to make the play be heard. And I think we're doing it."
It was Turner who turned Hall on to Machinal, which the actress thinks is long overdue a renaissance. "I really hope that people rediscover it," she admitted. "It is talked about plenty in academic circles, but it should be a living play in our consciousness and our repertoire. I am shocked that it isn't done more frequently."
Michael Cumpsty, radically reversing engines from his last American Airlines Theatre outing, has gone from the sensitive suitor in The Winslow Boy to the overbearing husband here, but he had little to say about that — or anything. He got through the play but felt his throat tightening in his first TV interview and spent the rest of the evening on vocal rest, speaking softly but mostly miming.
In the mother role, Suzanne Bertish said that neither she nor Hall had a problem with the American accent because "after all, we both had American mothers."
Taking the play from the top again, she said, "was strange, but we had to go back to the beginning to get the full effect. What I loved was working with this ensemble and this terrific director. I've been working 40 years, and she's on a hand of five. She's that great. You can tell. It's wonderful to be in a great play, and I believe this is a great play and what we all believe to be a great production. That's a real privilege."
The character identified only as Lover — which launched Clark Gable on Broadway and, two plays later, to Hollywood — has been inherited by Morgan Spector, who refuses to let a little statistic like that weigh him down: "Every Broadway revival has a legacy," he reasoned, "and it's exciting to be a part of that legacy." Period.
The staccato speaking style was fun for him. "The language is structured in such a way it's natural and also has that kind of period energy. It's fast like His Girl Friday. You get on that back-and-forth rat-a-tat. It's got a very satisfying rhythm to it."
As for That Other Incident: "Honestly, in addition to pure adrenaline, it was one of the most exhilarating nights I've ever had in my whole life. When you have an audience that gets on your side that way and Lindsey's backstage rallying the whole crew and those guys jumping up from the house to rescue us — I just found it amazing."
Ashley Bell, who mans the switchboard in the office scene, thought Turner's backstage pep talk to the troops had a St. Crispin's Day ring to it. "She came backstage and said, 'Sophie Treadwell will be heard on Broadway again, by hook or by crook, so get ready! We're going again!' The people who built the machine were in audience, and came backstage asking, 'What can we do?' Also, stage managers were calling stagehands from the other Broadway houses, so people were running in, using the tunnels to get into the theatre so they could help move the stage.
"And this audience was the best audience in the world. You guys were such a warm house. When you guys started applauding again when we came back for the subway scene, I momentarily started to tear up, and then I thought, 'Oh, you gotta do the show, and I'm up next.' It was the most exciting thing I ever lived through."
One of several in this cast of 18 to be double-cast, Arnie Burton, has a nice (if ineffective) day in court defending Hall and a good night as a speakeasy sleaze. "This may be the first, certainly American, play that has a gay man obviously trying to pick up a younger man. All that was in the play. A few months before Machinal, Mae West was arrested for her play, Sex, which had gay men in it, and they shut it down."
After the show, he said, "We hugged, had a glass of champagne, knocked back some whiskey. We're all still a little stunned by it all, I must say. I found the curtain call very moving — all those guys who had taken off their suits, rolled up their sleeves and started moving the set, watching them take their bows. You're always saying the show must go on, and you're so used to it, but tonight we really had to do it."
Send questions and comments to the Webmaster
Copyright © 2014 Playbill, Inc. All Rights Reserved.