Good playwrights, like good composers, can find music in anything. With the highly expressionist Machinal, Sophie Treadwell found the music in drudgery. With its new production of the play at Theater for a New City, One Year Lease has found the drudgery in drudgery.
But let's be fair - Machinal is not a simple piece. First produced on Broadway in 1928, and based on the Ruth Snyder trial (which Treadwell covered as a reporter), it demands a certain degree of abstractness in its staging and presentation to be balanced with musical movements, tempo and dynamic variations, and frequent and radical changes in phrasing. Machinal is so much like a symphony of words, actions, and feelings that it almost requires a conductor rather than a director.
Unfortunately, Ianthe Demos has attempted to direct the play into submission resulting in anything but a well-oiled machine. That's not to say that Demos hasn't tried to evoke the proper atmosphere - she has. She's had set designer James Hunting transform the theater into what looks like the stifling bowels of a manufacturing plant, asked costume designer Kay Lee to clothe her actors primarily in sexless utilitarian uniforms, and coerced Mike Riggs to design lights that hit the stage from every imaginable harsh angle (including below).
But making the play look like a machine and act like one are two very different things. Demos doesn't have a good handle on the rhythms and counterpoints of the dialogue, much of which is delivered by the actors in a very throwaway style. This is never more damaging than in the first scene, set in an office, where actors' lines overlap with office equipment to create an ear-pounding mosaic of elements of the modern workaday world; Demos's staging of this critical scene barely registers, and the rest of the play suffers as a result.
Demos seems to have staging troubles throughout. It's not just that she never precisely delineates the industrial phoniness of life that drives the play's central figure, Helen (Ariane Barbanell), to marriage, motherhood, adultery, and then murder. Her very handling of the actors suggests she's a bit out of her element -- she's directed Barbanell, for example, not as a caged animal but someone who is vacant or, at best, mildly annoyed. This is the woman so stifled by modern life she comes to see death, of others or herself, as the ultimate freedom?
Demos's staging of the supporting actors is little better -- she has them perched high on ladders in the central stage area and hidden in various places around the theater, often making it difficult to determine who's saying what or where the speaker is. Later in the show, Demos solves this by placing the actors directly in front of rows of seats, blocking some audience members' views, also not an ideal solution.
Of the actors, only Bill Coelius as Helen's boss and eventual husband (and victim) compensates for the nuances Demos has missed, balancing the promise of security with the suffocative geniality and conformity that drives Helen to murder. It's difficult to see why Helen would be inspired by Durand Ford, who plays her illicit lover with emotional detachment so complete and stony, he seems almost more ideal for Helen. Brian Armstrong has a few interesting moments as Helen's pandering defense attorney, and Jack McGowan's fey prosecutor is worth an unintentional laugh or two, but none of the other ensemble members is particularly distinctive.
It's easy to see why a director would be tempted and challenged by the captivating and musical Machinal, and Demos deserves credit for attempting such a daunting play. But she, and other directors attracted to Treadwell's masterful play, would do well to remember that even plays that speak for themselves can't stage themselves, and any director with a "foolproof" script still has a tremendous amount of work ahead of them.
One Year Lease