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picture - Adding MachineTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published March 4, 2008


Adding Machine

now playing Off Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theater

through June 15


Chicago may be famous for its arctic-like wintry breezes, but it is heating up New York this season with theatrical productions that originated there. First, there was the Steppenwolf production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, which has taken up residence on Broadway, and, now, from Evanston’s Next Theatre Company, comes Adding Machine, a beautifully calibrated work of art that has opened at the West Village’s cozy Minetta Lane Theatre and where it will hopefully remain until every serious theater-goer, who either lives here or is passing through, gets a chance to see it at least once. As far as I’m concerned, it can run until their children see it, too. I can think of no other show in town that provides such ample evidence that miracles are still possible in the theater.


A word or two about miracles in the theater: they have nothing to do with heavenly intervention. However, they have everything to do with dedicated and talented theater artists working hard to bring to life something that they are passionate about; to surround themselves with a company that shares their commitment; to give imagination sway over how much money can be spent to create any effect they feel is necessary; to do their best to see that they get those desired effects and to doggedly insist on preserving the integrity of their efforts; and, finally, to make all that work look effortless.  That is clearly what the creative team behind Adding Machine has achieved: a miracle. What is baffling, of course, is why such hard work should be so rare.


It started presumably with Next Theatre’s artistic director Jason Loewith (also co-librettist) and his obsession with Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (written in 1923, it is the first successful American expressionist play and has been in college curriculums ever since; it is likely that there is a college production somewhere in this city at this very moment) and his vision that it would, in style and content, be the springboard for a meaningful contemporary musical. It was a calculated risk, since a play that was a response to the mechanization of society might seem dated by today’s standards. It began to take shape when he found the composer (and co-librettist) Joshua Schmidt who, it would seem, had not merely an outsize talent but a natural affinity to the material. It helped, of course, that Loewith had a theater where the material could be molded and shaped and developed.


This is the story of Mr. Zero (the excellent Joel Hatch) who, after twenty-five years of monotonous service as a “number” man, is released from his job, to be replaced by an adding machine, and who, because of this, kills his boss (those who may have most recently seen Brett C. Leonard’s Unconditional can feel the influence of Rice).  He is executed, and is given a chance to come back to life and start over again, knowing this time around that he has been addicted to his ordinariness and his emotional estrangement, and, by understanding that much, he can, if he chooses, change his life on the second go around. It is a bleak tale, to be sure, but a powerful one, for all its simplicity, and, in the end, it does hold out more than a glimmer of hope for Mr. Zero and, better yet, for the audience.


This adaptation holds fast to its original concept, but, in the execution, plays fast and loose with the particulars, and, though it maintains its grimness, as it must, it actually has fun along the way with some of the bleaker elements. In finding something almost comic under these tragic circumstances, Schmidt and Loewith are actually more faithful to the satiric edge Rice intended but which hardly ever comes through in most productions.


The first startling image of the evening is of Mr. and Mrs. Zero’s bed, seen from a bird’s-eye view, with a physically and emotionally frozen Mr. Zero huddled into his corner while Mrs. Zero (the terrifically brittle Cyrilla Baer) nags at him from hers, both of them tucked into, as if imprisoned within, a rumpled sheet and bed cover, every crease and fold of which has been craftily sculpted. Mrs. Zero’s nagging is the spirit behind the evening’s first brilliant semi-operatic and grotesquely comic song, “Something To Be Proud Of.” We are immediately transported into the world of the musical play, through a remarkable alchemy of music, performance, design, and mood. The credit for this must, of course, go to David Cromer’s astute and loving direction; nothing misses his eye.


But that eye is shared by his fellow artists, and particularly by his set designer, Takeshi Kata, whose work is the best of its kind that this reviewer has seen this season. From that sculptured bed to the brown and grey palette that transform Mr. Zero’s world – his office, his apartment, the prison where he is held pending death – into an evocation not only of his life and time but of a whole bygone theatrical genre. And the extravagantly beautiful Elysian Fields he has created, suffused, as it is, with the bright blue and amber-hued colors of a Maxfield Parrish painting, is also wryly funny.  The final images inside the giant machine that swallows us up are darkly poetic. Fog has rarely been used so propitiously.


Kata’s work is embellished by Keith Parham’s eloquent and imaginative lighting. And Tony Smolenski IV’s sound design adds tonal subtlety to the proceedings. It is not unlike a chain reaction, in which one artist working at the top of his form inspires another artist to act in kind, and continuing down the line.


If I seem to be working backwards – or inwards – in order to describe the full power and impact of the experience, let us move next to Schmidt’s score, in which you may hear all sorts of influences, from Kurt Weill to Meredith Willson, from Stravinsky to Sondheim, all of it transmuted into a very distinctive sound that makes Schmidt a composer to pay attention to. The lyrics by Schmidt and Loewith are consistently witty and emblematic of a sturdy collaboration, one that owes a great deal to Elmer Rice without ever losing its own striking originality.


And this score, of course, infuses the cast with the best kind of committed musicality. The singing, in short, is gorgeous, whether it is chorally or individually sung. There is not the slightest whiff of show-biz showing off here. This is the kind of performance that never lets us stray for a single moment from the piece itself. So, if we give primary praise to Hatch, Ms. Baer, the hauntingly vulnerable Amy Warren as Mr. Zero’s love-smitten co-worker (her “I’d Rather Watch You” is rich with humanity), the slithery Joe Farrell as a fellow prisoner who also shows up in the afterlife of Elysian Fields, and Jeff Still as Mr. Zero’s final guide to his potential redemption, it is only because they are more dominant figures. The costumes, by the extremely talented Kristine Knanishi, seem to be based on the actors’ characterizations as well as being true to the period and atmosphere. The way Ms. Baer moves in the costumes that have been designed for her, for example, is both tellingly true and deliciously funny.


This then is the miracle: a unique group of serious theater artists working in perfect harmony to bring to vivid poetic life a work of significance and beauty. This is also the best new musical of the season, one so truly superb that I doubt that anything will come along that is better. It may not please all tastes.  What work of art ever does? But I can’t imagine that anyone exposed to Adding Machine will not have his or her taste refined and expanded.


harveyperr @


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