Atmospheric Revival Of Murder Drama Captures '20s Mood


MACHINAL Play by Sophie Treadwell. Directed by Michael Greif. At the Public/Luesther Hall. THE New York Shakespeare Festival has spared nothing in the way of atmospherics, stage busyness, and noisy sound effects to recreate the milieu of Sophie Treadwell's 1928 drama, ``Machinal.''

The play was directly influenced by the sensational Snyder-Gray trial. Convicted of murdering her husband, Ruth Snyder became the first woman executed in the electric chair.

Miss Treadwell, who covered the trial as a reporter, dramatized the events leading up to fatal consequences in a series of episodic vignettes (performed at the Public without intermission).

The action commences in David Gallo's surreal setting for a business establishment in which the roar of machinery is counterpointed by the staccato dialogue of robot-like clerks and other employees.

Pursued by Mr. Jones (John Seitz), the insecure Young Woman (Jodie Markell) of the tragedy soon resigns herself to a suffocating marriage.

The birth of a daughter merely intensifies the Young Woman's sense of bewilderment and loneliness. A speakeasy meeting with a casual drifter leads to a brief affair and, ultimately, the desperate act that culminates in her arrest and conviction. Not surprisingly, the trial is a highlight of ``Machinal.''

Miss Treadwell's sympathies throughout are with the Young Woman as helpless victim, enjoying none of the fruits of female liberation.

Yet a latter-day audience may find the dramatic substance of ``Machinal'' on the slight side.

The revival staged by Mr. Greif keeps faith with an underlying theme: the malaise of a mechanistic, materialistic society. The plight is most acutely evident in Miss Markell's poignant portrayal of the Young Woman. But it is also true of Mr. Seitz's boring Babbitt of a husband and also of Marge Redmond's bewildered Mother. William Fichtner's Lover is a sort of 1920s easy rider.

The remaining members of a large effective cast are kept busy, most of them playing several parts.

The production was costumed to the period by Sharon Lynch and lighted by Kenneth Posner.

NOTWITHSTANDING the efforts of the cast and crew, ``Machinal'' winds up as more of a theatrical curio than a deeply engaging drama.

A few items may be worth mentioning with regard to the drama itself and the season in which it opened. Critically well received, ``Machinal'' enjoyed a modest popular success. Miss Treadwell's other plays were failures.

The Lover in the original production was acted by Hal K. Dawson, who subsequently went to Hollywood and became better known as Clark Gable.

THE 1928-29 season was accounted a bad one for Broadway. Nevertheless, along with ``Machinal,'' ``The Best Plays of 1928-1929'' included among others ``Street Scene,'' by Elmer Rice; ``Journey's End,'' by R. C. Sherriff; ``Wings Over Europe,'' by Robert Nichols and Maurice Browne; ``Holiday,'' by Philip Barry; ``Let Us Be Gay,'' by Rachel Crothers; and ``The Front Page,'' by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

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