Fly’s Eye Theatre

at Theater Oobleck

Machinal vaguely resembles that famous cartoon in which one goldfish says to the other, “So if there’s no God, tell me who changes the water?” A grim example of dramatic determinism, this relentlessly punitive play undermines any illusion of free will. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or Bigger Thomas in Native Son, Helen, the play’s all-suffering victim, finally chooses to do something–and that’s to kill. You know you’re in a deeply flawed world when people murder to prove they’re free. But why blame Machinal for reflecting our industrial society’s trivialization of human desires?

Like Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine or Chaplin’s Modern Times, Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 expressionistic drama–now being staged by Fly’s Eye Theatre, an arm of Theater Oobleck–depicts a world where human relations equal economic transactions, where people sell their future without feeling the loss. Helen’s ill-defined hopes for happiness or freedom don’t stand a chance. Alienation dogs her like her insomnia. Every attempt she makes to escape the tedium of work or marriage only brings on a new subservience.

Treadwell doesn’t just stack the cards against this female Job; she deals them out like the wrath of God in nine hard-edged episodes. Helen, who is edgy to the point of hysteria (well conveyed by Treadwell’s stream-of-consciousness monologues), hates the claustrophobia and cacophony of her job, the onslaught of random machine and human noise.

She’s no fonder of George Jones, her slob of a boss who says he loves her for her delicate hands. But Helen’s venal mother persuades her that though love won’t pay the bills, marrying the boss will. So Helen forces herself into the loveless marriage (symbolized by a miserable honeymoon in Atlantic City), then watches herself turn into a baby machine. Though she stumbles onto a lover (a feckless sweet-talker who suggests all she’s missed), Helen simply submits to sex with him too.

After six years of bondage to the marriage machine, Helen finally kills her husband. She is now engulfed by the law machine, which swiftly consigns her to the electric chair. “Why was I born?” she still wonders. “Is nothing mine?” Though the play sardonically suggests that Helen will now find the peace that eluded her in life, we wonder if she ever had a chance.

There’s a clear feminist protest behind Machinal’s litany of defeat, but Treadwell intended her indictment to be more universal, much as Dreiser did when he exposed Clyde Griffith’s thwarted lust for life in An American Tragedy. Helen is every person caught in the maw of the machine.

Yet this indictment feels a lot less fresh today than it must have in 1928. We harbor fewer illusions that materialism buys freedom (though that hasn’t stopped us from equating them). As theater, Machinal suffers from its own familiarity, a left-handed tribute to its influence: nothing Treadwell does to passive Helen is worse than what Christopher Durang inflicts on his martyred women or David Mamet did to Edmond.

To restore some of Machinal’s original urgency and to distract audiences from the predictability of Helen’s engineered disintegration, any revival has to make the story surprise us. Play it for real, and Machinal will diminish into a three-hankie tearjerker.

Helen’s well-grounded anguish is surrounded by a circus of absurdities aching to be played louder than life, which director Barbara Thorne seems to have realized. But though earnest and entertaining, her staging needs to get even bigger. Still, it has the look right: Martin Greiner’s claustrophobic set is fittingly cartoonlike (though Lisa Harrison’s costumes trigger the wrong realistic expectations), and a scrim is used effectively to reveal other troubled lives.

Yet it’s hard to make Helen matter. Treadwell never shows us what she was like before she went under, and she can easily pass for a human dart board. Though Annette Jagner gives her the winsome Mary Pickford “orphan of the storm” look, she doesn’t dig deeply into Helen’s despair–her air of battered naivete quickly turns wooden. Jagner’s only assured moments come in the scenes when she succumbs to her lover (played with callow confidence by Tim Van Metter). But in the crucial interior monologues Jagner’s emoting is strictly formulaic, and in the final moment of reckoning she’s running on empty.

If Helen isn’t convincing, then her exploitation looks like a series of sick jokes. Oddly enough, it’s in the supporting roles, where realism is most detrimental, that Thorne’s staging is most believable (despite quite a few muffed lines). George Czarnecki has the boss-husband’s vulgarity down pat, and though Patti Hannon underplays the mother’s coercion, she nicely underlines the woman’s crippling devotion. In multiple roles Mark Jannot, Elaine Belsito, Steve Meyer, Nancy Bishop, and Jesse Jacobs show off their dexterous versatility. What they don’t convey collectively is a sense of the systematic repression that stalks Helen like a Greek curse.