Usually, it takes more than a crowded subway train to rattle Rebecca Hall. But during a recent ride, the actress began to feel stifled, almost short of breath.
“I was on the subway, and I realized I’d taken the wrong train,” Hall said. “And I totally, uncharacteristically freaked out. I was like, ‘I have to get off the train now!’ “
Was it the noise? The crush? The substandard a cappella music?
Likely Hall’s anxiety attack owed less to commuting’s stressors and more to an obscure play from 1928. Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal — which rivals Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape and Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine as the greatest work of American expressionist drama — concerns Helen (identified in the script as Young Woman), who can’t contend with the bustling city around her.
In the play’s opening scene, the Young Woman arrives late to work, confessing that she had panicked while riding the subway. “I had to get out! In the air!” she says breathlessly. “All those bodies pressing. I thought I would faint! I had to get out in the air!”
Hall, the daughter of the English director Peter Hall and the American opera singer Maria Ewing, plays the Young Woman in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival, opening January 16. In taking on the role, Hall has had to transform from an outspoken, cheerful woman at ease with city life to a passive, fretful one ground down by it. And if her subway story is any indication, Hall may have taken the transformation rather far.
Intrigued by the trial of Ruth Snyder, executed for murdering her husband in concert with her lover, Treadwell, a journalist and former vaudeville actress, conceived Machinal as the story of “an ordinary young woman, any woman,” searching to free herself from the social strictures that threaten to suffocate her. “The woman is essentially soft, tender,” explained Treadwell in the introduction, “and the life around her is essentially hard, mechanized.”
A respectable success, the play ran for 91 performances on Broadway. The reviewer Brooks Atkinson wrote, “Treadwell has written a tragedy of submission; she has held an individual character against the hard character of a mechanical age.” (Not everyone approved the play. A London Observer critic wrote, rather tartly, “Really young women cannot be allowed to dispatch their husbands because they happen to dislike them.”)
Though a Times editorial hailed it as “a play that in a hundred years . . . should still be vital and vivid,” it has enjoyed only one previous revival on or off Broadway. But even as you hail the Roundabout for staging this paradigm of expressionist and feminist theater, you might question their hiring Hall to star in it.
A performer of fierce vitality and unabashed intelligence, Hall would seem to have little in common with the Young Woman, that avatar of passivity. At a Flatiron coffee shop, her brown hair lopped into a swingy bob, her ripe apple cheeks rosy from the cold, Hall was all friendliness and energy.
You believe Hall when she says she found it a challenge, albeit a welcome one, to embrace the Young Woman’s wallflower normality. Hall describes herself as “really loud and annoying in my opinions.” (She isn’t particularly.) But of the Young Woman she said, “She’s stymied, she’s passive, she’s ordinary. And that’s not uninteresting to play.”
Though her previous roles have typically favored more daring characters, like As You Like It‘s Rosalind or Mrs. Warren’s Profession‘s Vivie, Hall observed that “a person who’s incapable of trying to express that sense of inhibition and pain” tests her as an actor. And perhaps as a person, too. “You find out more about yourself by playing people quite unlike yourself,” she said. To play the Young Woman, she said, is “an exercise in being still.”
Hall had never read Machinal until another director pressed it on her five years ago. At the time she doubted she would like it. “When people say, here’s a play that was written in 1928 and nobody’s every heard of it, I suppose terribly your instinct is that it’s probably a little dated, it’s probably a little old-fashioned, and not very interesting.”
But she found herself fascinated by it. And upset by it, too. “I was so shocked by how arresting and confronting the language was,” she said. “Even sitting down and reading it, I felt ever so slightly strangled by the end of it.”
Still she knew she wanted to play the role, in part because the theater offers so few dynamic parts for women, though she hopes that a new crop of writers — Laura Wade, Lucy Kirkwood, Polly Stenham — might change that. In Machinal, Hall responded to the play’s fury (“You can hear this sort of visceral pumping anger — there’s a temper to it that goes all the way through”) and also to the Young Woman’s somewhat unlikable, antiheroic qualities.
“We have as much right as the men to play horrible monsters and vile people and people who are fallible and make terrible mistakes and are messed up and crazy,” said Hall. “You have to allow us to do a bit of everything, because that’s human.”
Hall sees the Young Woman as a sort of everywoman, a symbol of the strictures society places on all of us. And even as Hall acknowledges that many of the inequalities and injustices that press on the Young Woman have lessened, she finds parallels to the play even in her own life: “I’m a woman and therefore I’m not allowed to age. Or I’ve got to look thin in order to be successful. Those are the systems now.”
Lyndsey Turner, who directs the revival, praises Hall’s artistry and bravery in taking on this role and committing herself to what the Young Woman endures. “She’s an intelligent, humane, and nuanced actor,” wrote Turner in an email. “I’m amazed she manages to come to work with a smile on her face, despite knowing that, for the next eight hours, the play is going to drag her to hell and back.”
Even Hall admits that the play is exacting a toll. And not only on the subway. Even as she spoke in adoring tones of Turner’s direction, she admitted that she sometimes found working on the script to be “intensely claustrophobic and occasionally stifling.”
Most of the scenes play out in brittle staccato rhythms, and while learning them, said Hall, “I thought this is going to make me go insane, this is why it’s never done — because it makes the actress go completely insane.” She looked into her coffee and gave a kind of sigh. “I’m really hoping it won’t.”