Mrs. Jones’s death at the end of Machinal is redundant–she’s never really been alive at any point in the play. A shapeless bag of suffering pumped full of self-pity and guilt, she finally bursts during the courtroom scene, providing a feeble climax to this languid drama. I was delighted to see her get the electric chair.
Machinal is a play that survives on style, not substance. Written in 1928 by Sophie Treadwell, the dialogue is surprisingly modern in places, mploying the raucous rhythm and repetition that David Mamet made famous a half-century later. Treadwell even has Mrs. Jones lapse at times into a stream-of-consciousness reverie, delivering thought fragments in a tense staccato: “George H. Jones–fat hands–flabby hands–don’t touch me–please–fat hands are never weary–please don’t–married–all girls–most girls–married–babies–a baby–curls–little curls all over its head–George H. Jones–straight–thin–bald–don’t touch me–please–no–can’t–must. . . .”
It’s the kind of dialogue sure to catch the eye of a contemporary director, who will marvel at the playwright’s originality and prescience. The dialogue is so unusual, in fact, a director may not even notice that the play doesn’t work very well.
The problem is that for all her originality, Treadwell didn’t really have much to say. There is no passion to the writing, no conviction. The playwright made Mrs. Jones a wooden puppet, meant to embody the Downtrodden Woman, or the Victim of Industrial Society, or something. Then she led her through nine brief “episodes” spanning her adult life–from the office where she performs monotonous work to the prison where she is electrocuted for bludgeoning her husband to death while he slept. In between, Mrs. Jones does everything expected of her–she marries a rich man, has a baby, takes good care of her mother. But the farther she moves from her own instincts, the more frantic she becomes. She finally meets a man in a seedy bar, has a brief affair with him, and listens closely when he describes bludgeoning to death two Mexican bandits with a bottle filled with stones. “I had to get free, didn’t I?” he says–a phrase that reverberates within the young woman.
Despite believable moments, the characters just don’t ring true. Granted, they’re not meant to be naturalistic–Treadwell was trying to conjure a mood, not create a realistic, chronological narrative. But no matter what their function, characters have to have truth in them or they become cartoons or empty symbols–like these.
Lifeline Theatre has assembled a competent cast, so the problem isn’t lack of talent. In fact, Sandy Snyder is a wonderful choice for the young woman. Slim, waiflike, with wide, frightened eyes, she comes across as hopelessly accommodating and submissive. John Sterchi plays Mr. Jones as an insufferable nerd–well-meaning but maddening. “You’ve got to brace up and face things!” he says to his wife when she lapses into a profound postpartum depression. “That’s what makes the world go round.” And Lenny Grossman brings a deft mixture of machismo and romance to his role as the young woman’s lover.
Still, Machinal remains hollow and lifeless. Based on a notorious murder case of the day, it promises a sensational story if nothing else. Instead, the play’s pretentious and didactic. It’s like a piece of 1930s agitprop dressed up as art–a perfect waste of crime.