So "Machinal," which first appeared on Broadway in 1928, opened Thursday with more than a few in the audience wondering if a play last seen here during the Calvin Coolidge administration was scrap metal or salvageable.
The answer: The Roundabout Theatre Company's new production has kept the quirky engine but surrounded it with a good-looking chassis and new lighting and audio systems. It's even put in the driving seat the enormously appealing Rebecca Hall under the artful, creative direction of Lyndsey Turner.
The result at the American Airlines Theatre is a quirky, sometimes melodramatic and expressionist scream from the past that somehow still can move you.
Written by journalist Sophie Treadwell, "Machinal" was inspired by the true story of Ruth Snyder, a New York woman who died in the electric chair in 1928, convicted of killing her husband following an affair.
The title comes from the French "mechanical" or "automatic," and Treadwell uses staccato telegraphese, recurring and irritating rhythms and cliche-ridden repetition—the sounds of the nerve-racking city.
Her story is about a delicate dreamy woman named Helen Jones, who finds modern life unbearable—business, marriage and motherhood. Even commuting on a subway jammed up against an endless line of bodies is nauseating, as the terrific first scene shows.
"I'm all tight inside," she tells her mother. "I can't go on much longer like this."
She marries her boss (a bombastic and perfectly off-putting Michael Cumpsty), starts an affair with a stud muffin (tough guy Morgan Spector, doing a little Brando), goes on trial when her husband ends up dead and ends up in the electric chair, as much a victim as a perpetrator. Murder may not be forgivable a solution, but it is somewhat more understandable.
Hall, known for her film work in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "Iron Man 3," uses her wide, soulful eyes to terrific effect, telegraphing her inexorable 95-minute march to ultimate tragedy. A tall, long-limbed beauty, Hall projects a coltish unease and otherworldliness in the role, a woman ultimately in the wrong place and time.
Set designer Es Devlin has created a massive revolving, wood-paneled box that reveals more-than-possible adaptations over nine scenes, including the march to the death house in which it spins as fast as the actors march.
The effect is marvelous, especially when wed with lighting designer Jane Cox's unsettling brightness and shadows as well as harsh bands of light, and Matt Tierney's soundscape that includes mechanical thumps and engine noises.
"Machinal" is by no means perfect or smooth. There's a court scene that seems a jarring change from the mood of the rest, and it's peopled by flat characters spouting gibberish. Not for everyone, it's a moody, jarring meditation on the modern world that's a critique of capitalism, mechanization and male-dominated power. For 86, it looks pretty, weirdly good.