nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 24, 2008
Adding Machine, the new musical by Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith, based on Elmer Rice's 1923 play of the same name, begins with two striking scenes. The first is in the bedroom of Mr. and Mrs. Zero, a middle-aged, middle-American married couple. The bed is up-ended so that our perspective is essentially from above; we see Mr. Zero crouched on his side at one end, while his wife blathers on and on and on about the gossip she heard today, how hard she works, and what a huge disappointment Mr. Zero has turned out to be. Schmidt and Loewith have given Mrs. Zero a stylized way of talking that is set to a numbingly repetitive drone of a melody:
Mrs. Twelve was sayin' to me,
Mrs. Twelve was sayin' to me,
She says "What I like is them love stories.
Them sweet little love stories."
Mrs. Twelve was sayin' to me.
It's annoying as hell, which is precisely the point as we are ushered into Mr. Zero's claustrophobic, quietly desperate world.
Scene 2 is even better—a beautiful theatricalization of the drudgery of office work, realized with subtlety and simplicity in music and movement. Mr. Zero and two other male clerks sit at desks recording figures in ledgers, while at their sides female assistants mechanically read out those figures from receipts that they stack onto lethal-looking billfiles. Again, the atmosphere of Mr. Zero's pathetic existence is made visceral and real for us.
So we kind of understand what made him kill his boss, as we find out he did at the end of Scene 3.
But then, for the remaining four scenes, Adding Machine starts to veer badly off what we thought its course was. Mr. Zero goes to jail, where his wife visits and them harangues him and then another murderer in a nearby cell goes off half-cocked about how he will be punished for killing his mother. Somehow the conversation generates laughs rather than shock or empathy. Subsequent scenes depicting Mr. Zero's afterlife degenerate further into vulgar self-reference and/or irreverence. Mr. Zero's condition as an insignificant cog in an eternal machine doesn't seem to be the point of the show anymore; instead it seems to become a starting-point for jokes at his (our?) expense. But the jokes aren't actually funny; not if you really think about their content.
Schmidt and Loewith's score never again rises to the excellence of those first two scenes, by which I mean that it never succeeds in creating something transcendent that explains why an old play needs to be turned into a new musical. David Cromer's direction is limited by the requirements of Takeshi Kata's set, which features a very cool design for the last scene that, unfortunately, seems to restrict the playing space available for the rest of the play. Keith Parham's lighting is unrelievedly dark most of the time. Performances are scattershot, with Joe Farrell as Zero's jail-acquaintance Shrdlu acquitting himself best; I found Joel Hatch as Mr. Zero much more of a cipher than he needs to be and Cyrilla Baer as Mrs. Zero vacillating too obviously between a tragic opera heroine and a shrewish version of Edith Bunker.
I left Adding Machine baffled by its authors' intent. They've based their work on one of the earliest American experiments with expressionism, a piece rife with social commentary and conscience. But today's world is very different from the world that Rice was critiquing 80-some years ago, and consequently many of the play's concerns feel dated. While the fundamental human question at its center—how a man loses all of his will, all of his individuality—seems diminished in this new version, which features a different ending from Rice's play, with Mr. Zero suddenly and unaccountably engaging a heroic act. What does that mean?