Sophie's Choice

Jobsite does well by Machinal, and LiveArts falls on hard times

click to enlarge ACTING MACHINES: The brilliant Dena Cousins and Michael C. McGreevy. - Brian Smallheer
Brian Smallheer
ACTING MACHINES: The brilliant Dena Cousins and Michael C. McGreevy.

Sophie Treadwell is pretty much a forgotten figure in American literary history, but in her heyday she was a prolific and even celebrated writer. In her long life (1885-1970) she wrote 40 plays, four novels and hundreds of newspaper stories. As a reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin, she went undercover to investigate the lives of homeless women, toured Europe during World War I (1916-1918) and spent considerable time in Mexico, where she interviewed revolutionary Pancho Villa. Treadwell's first play to reach New York was Gringo (1922), but her most famous work was Machinal (1928), the title of which means "mechanical" in French. It was based on a notorious 1927 murder trial, in which Long Island housewife Ruth Snyder and her traveling-salesman lover were convicted of murdering Snyder's husband. Snyder was executed in the electric chair - the first woman to earn this dubious distinction. Treadwell, the complete reporter, was there to witness the execution.

After notable revivals in New York (1990) and London (1993), Machinal has now come to Tampa in a Jobsite Theater production. It's a beautiful show, with strong acting all round and a luminous central performance. But this is expressionist drama, in which subconscious emotions are made manifest while ordinary reality is suppressed, and the result is an experience that's curiously distant, even alien. The typical expressionist rebellion against mechanized society still has resonance, even though the depiction of the main character as an exotic flower too fragile for this coarse planet is a little hard to take. This woman - played brilliantly by Dena Cousins - is no stand-in for the audience; her extreme nervousness, sexual innocence and other-worldly longings feel bizarre to a modern spectator, and you can't help but wonder how she might fare with a little Prozac. Further, nothing in the play ever mitigates her crime: her husband may be pompous but he's not fundamentally evil, and his murder seems mostly a primitive act by a woman too addled to navigate the divorce laws. In other words, you may admire Machinal aesthetically, but I'm not sure you'll like it.

Following the usual expressionist conventions, Treadwell gives no names, or the most generic names, to her odd group of characters. At center stage is Young Woman, who's secretary for a Mr. Jones, and whose colleagues include Stenographer, Filing Clerk, Adding Clerk and Telephone Operator. When the play starts, we learn that Mr. Jones wants to marry Young Woman, but she's not so sure it's a good idea. For one thing, she doesn't love Jones; for another, her "skin curls" when he comes near her, and as she confides to her Mother, "Sometimes I feel like I'm stifling." But hey, this cruel world makes no allowances for such details; next thing we see, Young Woman and Jones are off on their honeymoon, where Jones' sexual advances provoke tears from Young Woman, and the cry, "I want my mother." But cruel world, etc., etc., and next thing we know, Young Woman has had a baby, an experience so shattering that she refuses to see the infant, and promises anxiously, "I've submitted to enough - I won't submit to any more." Her rebellion takes shape as a visit to a speakeasy, where she meets a Man who tells her that he murdered some banditos in Mexico with the help of a bottle filled with pebbles. This is apparently just the sort of guy Young Woman needed; she follows him home and begins an affair, admitting that intimacy with him makes her feel "purifed." Back at home with bourgeois Jones, everything's still wrong: he obsessively takes phone calls about some property he just bought, she finds herself gagging as if drowning, and all the newspaper headlines seem to be encouraging her to crime. Which leads to a courtroom - the murder itself isn't dramatized - during which a relentless Lawyer for the Prosecution tries to prove that our heroine lethally beaned her husband with a vase, filled, you guessed it, with pebbles. At the end, a priest chants and prays while Young Woman, in the Chair, cries out "Somebody! Somebody!"

Jobsite's production, directed by Chris Holcom, is superb. Best of all is actress Cousins, who as Young Woman seems to live in a universe of wild yearnings and unspeakable discomforts. This is grown woman as child: disgusted by the messiness of work, sex and childbirth, wanting only to thrive in some misty castle with her smooth-skinned prince. As egotist husband Mr. Jones, Michael C. McGreevy is also excellent: imperious, supercilious, vastly amused by the world of finance, and utterly insensitive to his skittish bride. The other main character is Young Woman's lover, played persuasively by Stephen Ray; this is an adventurer, a tough hombre of few words, who pretty much lives up to Young Woman's fantasy of what a real man must resemble.

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