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Adding Machine

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Joel Hatch and Cyrilla Baer
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

That click-clack-click you hear might be the sound of an ending, but it also heralds an exciting beginning. Let it calculate and sweep away the mistakes and the misdeeds of the past, for an uncertain future can sometimes sound as sweet as an angel's choir. In the daring and often invigorating new musical Adding Machine, which just opened at the Minetta Lane Theatre, you'll be amazed at how genuinely alive the walking dead can be.

Written by Joshua Schmidt (music and libretto) and Jason Loewith (libretto), this is the rare case of a straightforward straight play adaptation that shocks and surprises both in keeping with and beyond the original source. Like the 1923 Elmer Rice Expressionist masterpiece on which it's based, Adding Machine captures unnatural occurrences and natural rhythms with a disjointed but disarming grace. But in finding musical equivalents to the play's quick-shooting, fire-in-the-belly dialogue, Schmidt and Loewith have elevated the original's bleakly realistic worldview without dulling its sharpest edges.

This is no small achievement. Rice's condemnation of the eternal suffering of the working class is acidic but irresistible, as gut-wrenching as Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape or Sophie Treadwell's Machinal, but perhaps even more accessible. In his play, however, Rice chose not to lay the blame solely at the feet of the profit-hungry employers, but to also make it abundantly clear that his tragedy began at home.

Schmidt and Loewith start there as well, also kicking off their version in the bedroom of Mr. and Mrs. Zero (Joel Hatch and Cyrilla Baer). Her gossipy pillow talk becomes the stuff of nightmares, grating in her husband's ear with the echo of a quarter-century of connubial banality. For he is as much a slave to her attempts at keeping up with the Eights and the Twelves as he is to nine-to-five drudgery of his zero-sum-game job of tabulating store receipts, another position he's held for 25 years.

His job is likewise awash in numbing numbers, smeared with barely concealed thoughts of coworkers who can't keep their minds on their jobs as well as Mr. Zero can. The ambience is one of controlled chaos, in which every word and breath is vital in establishing a workplace that works because of its spirit-squelching music, not in spite of it. When the music stops, forcing you (and Mr. Zero) to listen to the damning words of the boss firing him and replacing the human adding machine with a mechanical one, what you don't hear is as deafening as what you couldn't escape a few minutes earlier.

Joel Hatch and Amy Warren
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The silence leads to more music, alternately damning and redemptive, as Mr. Zero murders his boss, stands trial, is jailed and executed, and witnesses the wonders of the afterlife. Schmidt and Loewith make no missteps in tracking his search for lasting personal truth, which is sometimes punctuated by others - his doting colleague, the lovely but leery Daisy Devore (Amy Warren); the young, mother-slaying spiritualist Shrdlu (Joe Farrell) - but is most bracing in the moments that trap him inside his own morality. (His damning courtroom confession is as harrowing a song as you'll hear this season.)

The writers weave anger, despair, and joy throughout scenes in this world and the next just as Rice did in his play: so that it becomes impossible to distinguish one from another. As such, the songs, while striking, tend to blend together; standouts are limited to a lovely era-setting radio ballad (sung by Warren) called "I'd Rather Watch You" and Shrdlu's gospel goodbye. The others, while ideal substitutes for Rice's pounding, melodic language, cut rather deeper into the mind, heart, and plot than they do the ear.

Director David Cromer matches them with injections of antic energy that give the production a well-oiled clockwork feel that's further enhanced by Keith Parham's otherworldly lighting. But there's a clunkiness about Takeshi Kata's larger sets, especially when moving on and off, that sabotages the pacing of a show that must remain completely fluid to be completely effective. Some of this is unavoidable (how quickly can a jail become the Elysian Fields?), but nonetheless damaging to a show so reliant on its kineticism.

The performers are roundly up to the challenge, delivering scintillating and unsentimental portrayals of souls caught in the endless gears of an uncaring universe. Hatch rigorously embodies Mr. Zero's bone-deep exhaustion, raising or furrowing his world-beaten brow with an arresting disconnectedness that winningly masks the doomed monster residing underneath. Baer makes Mrs. Zero an awful but flamboyantly funny nag, so detestable but so likeable that nothing about her behavior - or her husband's in response - comes as a surprise. Warren is delightful as the ill-fated young woman who gives everything for a man as unworthy of her as he is of himself. Farrell is an exemplar of shattered innocence as Shrdlu.

In this world, though, there are no good guys. No one is a hero, and everyone is a cog - life can't end happily if happiness doesn't exist to begin with. Schmidt and Loewith may have done an astonishing amount to make Rice entertaining, but they could do only so much. You'll leave this show energized, outraged, and probably raring to quit your job - this is not a great date show or a depression-killer.

It is, however, a dynamic outing that shouldn't be missed by anyone longing for a reminder of how musical theatre can actually be theatre. Like Off-Broadway's other current Expressionist tuner, The Blue Flower (which runs only through this weekend), Adding Machine is a stirring example of a musical that makes its magic by refusing to play by established numbers.

Adding Machine
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane (Off of 6th Avenue between Bleecker and West 3rd Street)
Current Schedule and Tickets online: Ticketmaster