Colin has an easy, loping stride. His lungs fill and empty effortlessly. Helen, by contrast, can barely catch her breath. She skitters about in her sensible pumps, hemmed in on all sides.
Antihero and antiheroine, Colin and Helen are separated by race, place, time, and circumstance. He’s the titular character in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the Alan Sillitoe short story now adapted and updated by playwright Roy Williams for the Atlantic. She’s at the center of Machinal, Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 expressionist drama, enjoying a rare Broadway revival courtesy of the Roundabout. Both are running as fast as they can (which in Colin’s case is quite speedily). Trouble is, they can’t outrun themselves.
An exploration of the sacrifice of self that modernity demands, director Lyndsey Turner’s stylish if sometimes detached Machinal opens on a crowded subway car. Your ears fill with the sound of the engine and you almost seem to feel the vibrations of the track, when suddenly a woman, Helen (Rebecca Hall), attempts to free herself from the bodies smothering her. Though Helen dreams of a life beyond her tenement apartment and cramped office, marriage to her boss (a bluff Michael Cumpsty) is only another kind of confinement.
Hall — even as she struggles with some of the script’s rhythms — gives an elegant and nuanced performance. Vulnerable and fragile, her Helen also possesses a strange tensile strength. Hall thrives particularly in Helen’s scene with her lover (a nicely understated Morgan Spector), who seems to promise respite from her boorish husband. The young woman’s joy as she lolls on her bed of bliss is infectious; Treadwell cleverly suggests it is also illusory.
“You know why I came here?” Helen asks her lover. “Because you told me I looked like an angel to you.”
“Jeez, honey,” he replies, “all women look like angels to me.”
Once abandoned, Helen plots a more desperate course, which, like the story that inspired Machinal, ends in the electric chair. As there’s a world of difference between murdering your husband and knocking over a bakery, black Londoner Colin (Sheldon Best, tremendously winning) receives a rather lighter sentence, nine months in a juvenile detention facility. The higher-ups think he might show promise as a runner, and, as Colin wryly observes, “Running has always been a part of my life, especially as I was always running away from the police.”
Williams writes with conversational ease, Leah C. Gardiner directs with bracing efficiency, and the actors go about their work with verve and apparent pleasure. (That Best can give such a rousing performance while jogging at such speeds is its own biathlon.) So it takes some time to realize the striking structural and intellectual complexity of Loneliness. The script clearly meshes three distinct time scales — Colin’s pivotal race, his childhood and adolescence, and his meetings with Stevens (Todd Weeks), a seemingly kind but ultimately self-serving prison official.
An ambivalent play, Loneliness asks questions ultimately more troubling than those of Machinal, which telegraphs its inexorable end from the first scene. The drama culminates in a brazen act of defiance, which Colin performs in a necessary attempt to define himself as an individual. But in resisting the forces that would delimit and exploit him, he also cuts himself off from the one pursuit that fulfills him. Victory strands him on the wrong side of the finish line.