PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Machinal—A Showstopper: The Set

By Harry Haun
17 Jan 2014

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Rebecca Hall
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
It was a show-savvy crowd full of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I empathy. There was genuine suspense of whether they would be a Scene Five and, "Well, what do you think so far?" and the uneasy feeling of being aboard a theatrical Titanic.

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.