Based on the lurid story of Ruth Snyder, a New Yorker who, with her lover, murdered her husband and was electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison in 1928, Machinal is an “expressionist” play. That description was used in 1929 when Treadwell’s (an investigative reporter and feminist) play opened on Broadway. It is characterized by extreme simplification of characters to mythic types, declamatory dialogue and heightened intensity.
Considered a hit on Broadway, Machinal (derived from the French word for mechanical) ran 91 shows. It was the first big role for Clark Gable, who played the feckless lover. The show has been revived many times, and is popular with colleges and universities--perhaps because starkness makes for a low-budget production. It’s hard to be involved with a stage full of performers who move woodenly, rarely smile, and, since you know the punch line, hard to become involved in plot development. The movement direction by Elizabeth Margolius was well done and added dimension to flat (purposely) production. The evening we attended, the understudy, Abigail Schwarz, a student at North Central College, played the Ruth. She was outstanding. North Central College collaborated with Greenhouse on the production.
We can assume that when the play was first produced, it alluded to homosexuality in the cabaret scene. In this production, two homosexual couples, one male, one female, sit woodenly in wooden chairs, mumbling inane lines to each other, holding hands, on the periphery of the set. Was this added just to appeal to a “special” theater crowd? To show modern sensibilities that were not likelycast in an early 20th century play? IMHO, the special crowd might be offended because the characters seem so clumsily grafted into the play.
Expressionist theater makes for a rigid and rather boring evening. If you are a student of theater, see it to learn about the genre. Otherwise, skip it.